Flesh-eating children will be the death of their teachers in Cooties, an uneven but gleefully un-PC and irreverent horror-comedy that comes across as an acerbically quick ensemble comedy show that would air on NBC with prepubescent zombies dropped in for conflict. Being horrific and comic at the same time is a tonal push-and-pull that can be hard to crack, and debuting directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion and screenwriters Leigh Whannell (Saw and the Insidious series) & Ian Brennan (TV’s Glee and the upcoming Scream Queens) settle for an impish, all-in-good-fun romp of gasps, chuckles and entrails. It always feels like the film will break out even more and be the best it can be, hopefully realizing its utmost potential, but a decently entertaining midnight-movie favorite with a moderate cult following will just have to do.
Finding himself back in his Illinois hometown and just trying to write a book about an evil boat, aspiring New York horror writer Clint (Elijah Wood) picked the wrong day to sub at Fort Chicken Elementary. Unbeknownst to him and the rest of the faculty—among them, the perky Lucy (Alison Pill), whom Clint hasn’t seen in fifteen years and still has eyes for him; gym teacher Wade (Rainn Wilson), Lucy’s intimidating jackass boyfriend; socially awkward sex-ed teacher (Leigh Whannell); closeted-but-not-convincing-anyone art teacher Tracy (Jack McBrayer); and tightly wound conservative Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad)—a tainted chicken nugget makes its way into the cafeteria and snowballs a viral outbreak that turns the classrooms of entitled brats into wheezing, growling, blister-infested monsters. Outnumbered and vulnerable, the adults (and a few children who made it) can only barricade themselves in the teacher’s lounge for so long before they must fight back and get to safety.
Built around childhood’s innocuous (and fictional) disease from the opposite sex that gets turned into an icky foodborne virus, Cooties has an inspired premise that’s off-the-charts gross, especially right off the top and in the first act. The opening title sequence, which includes the killing of a chicken, the infection of the carcass from a fly, the manufacturing of chicken nuggets, and then a pig-tailed girl in the cafeteria biting into the oozing food, is disturbingly bleak and stomach-churning enough to make one go vegan. Next up, “Patient Zero” has her pig tail ripped right out of her scalp, squishy sound effect included, by a bully named Patriot (Cooper Roth), who was born on September 11th, and takes a chunk out of his cheek. It’s that kind of movie, folks. A lot of the film’s bonkers humor is wrong—children playing tetherball with a severed head and jump roping with intestines are a few of the macabre sights—but within the tongue-in-cheek tone and handling of teachers banding together against their infected pupils, it feels so right. Also, there are satirically sly ribbings at modern parenting and what the public school system feeds its students.
Back in school and running for his life from students rather than his teachers in 1998’s The Faculty, Elijah Wood is at his most likable in recent years after playing creeps/maniacs and grounds the crazy goings-on as nice-guy Clint; there’s also a cute reference to a “hobbit.” As sweetie-pie Lucy, Alison Pill is delightfully game, countering her all-smiles positivity with a no-bullshit outburst that would seem to come out of nowhere, but given her tug-of-war with Clint and Wade and the life-or-infected circumstances, it’s a great, clap-worthy character moment. Outside of Clint and Lucy, though, the other characters are mostly broad, one-note types but provide energy and amusement from the go-for-it commitment of its comedically adept cast. Rainn Wilson could play this sort of dopey, all-bravado role in his sleep, but in the times his macho P.E. teacher Wade sounds like he’s having a stroke when trying to pronounce certain words, he’s a hoot. More unexpectedly wacky is Leigh Whannell as Doug, who needs an instructional book to help him make small talk with a human being but has no qualms about dissecting a dead infected student’s brain to figure out what they’re dealing with exactly.
Aside from all of the gruesome, frenzied carnage involving fourth-graders that never seems compromised, the one-liner-laced interactions between the motley crew of faculty members is the film’s most infectious feature. Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion also keep up a breakneck pace with a sunny disposition, juxtaposed by all of the bloodletting, and slick, pretty simple technical credits. A slow-motion sequence of the children at recess attacking one of the teachers from the mushroom-powered point-of-view of a stoned crossing guard (Jorge Garcia) is an amusing highlight, and there’s a moody shot above a floor air vent with Clint and Lucy inside, while the pig-tailed “patient zero” circles them on her bicycle like a shark trapping its human prey. Cooties falls short of brilliance, particularly in its ending that was rewritten and still seems unsure of an honest resolution, but this is one of those rare occasions where a film that looks like it was fun to make by the cast and crew is a whacked-out good time to watch, too.
Cooties will open in select theaters and on VOD/iTunes Friday, September 18th.