A self-aware movie about killer schoolchildren should have been a lot more interesting than the abysmal 'Cooties'
Director: Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell and Ian Brennan
Starring: Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Leigh Whannell, Jack McBrayer, Nasim Pedrad and Jorge Garcia
Rated R / 1 hour, 28 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
The more horror-comedy that gets made, the clearer it becomes that there is virtually no middle ground. You're either really good at it or completely inept. You either know exactly what you're doing (and why you're doing it), or you don't have a clue.
A big part of the problem is that most horror-comedies think they're inherently clever, as if the filmmakers are under the impression they are the first people in the world to invent the idea of poking fun at horror (or genre films in general). I'm talking mostly about the playful genre send-ups and the hybrids that both satirize and earnestly embrace horror. It's an increasingly common subgenre, and its batting average just keeps getting lower and lower. Everyone thinks they're Sam Raimi or Edgar Wright. Most of the time they're closer to Friedberg & Seltzer.
That brings us to Cooties, which is not only an abysmal horror-comedy in its own right, but doesn't even have the courtesy to be half as clever as its moderately clever title suggests it might be. In fact, this is a complete waste of "Cooties" as both a title and concept. Using that beloved schoolyard tradition as fodder for a horror movie, in which elementary school children literally infect each other with the disease? Golden. A horror movie in which teachers have to kill infected kids in order to survive? EVEN BETTER.
But this movie doesn't really do anything. The title is almost incidental. If it hadn't mentioned the term "cooties," there would be virtually no reason to make the connection at all. They could have just called it Zombie Children and we'd be none the wiser. Because that's what this movie is: a zombie movie. And a bad one, at that. Not to belabor the point, but cooties, as I recall, was a threat among children and only among children. Adults are not part of the equation. This movie, on the other hand, is told entirely from the point of view of the adults (who, having gone through puberty, are immune); and rather than systematically, even playfully showing the virus passing from kid to kid (again, in keeping with the presumed spirit of the concept), the film's approach is to have all the kids get infected pretty much immediately, which means it instantly becomes a run-of-the-mill zombie scenario. The uninfected are in hiding in a room or a stairwell or a roof, looking for makeshift weapons and trying to figure out a way of escape. And that's it. It seems like the filmmakers had a certain vague notion of making a movie called Cooties, but never actually found a clever way to use it. The title is no more than an affectation.
Oh, but look how far off-track I've gotten us. Forgive me for focusing so much on the title, because the fact is this movie is a steaming pile no matter what it's called. It has no comedic sensibility to speak of, beyond a nebulous sense that killing small hyperactive zombies, and repeating common horror-movie visual traditions, should be funny in some way. It inherits countless genre conventions but can't find anything to do with them. It has absolutely no sense of timing (which is death for any comedy or horror movie, let alone a hybrid of the two). Its fleeting satirical impulses go nowhere. And it looks cheap and ugly, too.
Here's where I'd like to say, "But what a cast!" And, OK, for the sake of ceremony, I'll play along: Wow, what a cast!
Which in this case translates to, "Wow, what an enormous amount of wasted talent!" Co-writer Leigh Whannell - who previously penned the first three Saw films and the entire (so far) Insidious series - writes himself the best role as Doug, a sort of extreme, absurd version of the socially awkward character that every good zombie survivor ensemble needs. We first see him in the teachers' lounge early on, reading a book called How to Have a Normal Conversation, and then proceeding to attempt to strike up such a conversation with a pair of co-workers. That scene - and the whole character, who has only a tenuous grasp of his surroundings but winds up being the group's only source of intelligent insight into the situation at hand - feels like something out of a Quentin Dupieux film, a stark difference from the more banal archetypes littering the rest of the script.
The main character is Clint (Elijah Wood), a failed writer who's returned to his hometown to substitute teach at his old school - alongside his old crush, Lucy (Alison Pill) - who finds himself in an unfriendly rivalry with Lucy's pseudo-macho, gym-coach boyfriend Wade (Rainn Wilson).
I'll give the movie credit for this much: Unlike most movies about bad writers, Cooties is at least aware that its protagonist is a (very) bad writer, and makes that part of the joke. He's a nice-guy fraud attempting to write a bad horror novel built on metaphors he's all too eager to point out to everyone - a horror novel about a young man's relationship to a possessed boat that several people point out is a whole lot like Stephen King's Christine.
The film's knowing approach to Clint's hackery is one of the only surprises in what amounts to a half-assed zombie flick - one that barely even attempts to deliver any of the cleverness it seems to preemptively think it has earned. Above all, we should be angry that Cooties stole that title from the hypothetical horror-comedy that might have actually dared to do something with it.