September 18, 2015
Leigh Whannell and Ian Brennan (screenplay), Ian Brennan & Leigh Whannell & Josh C. Waller (story)
Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
Elijah Wood as Clint
Rainn Wilson as Wade
Alison Pill as Lucy
Jack McBrayer as Tracy
Leigh Whannell as Doug
Only two things came to mind when I heard that there was a forthcoming horror comedy entitled Cooties. Obviously, the build-your-own bug game from long ago was first to pop up. And a quote from a very early episode of The Simpsons. Principal Skinner is dating Patty Bouvier (one of Marge’s sisters), and when he finally goes in for a kiss, he whispers to her, “Kiss me, Patty. I don’t have cooties.”
Had Principal Skinner actually been battling the cooties carried by his swarm of schoolchildren, this new film may well have been a remake. But his reference to this childhood “malady” was only meant to impress his lady-friend.
Now, with that inane anecdote out of the way, I want you to hold on to yourselves. You’re about to read a second review from me (this now makes only two of them) which will garner a perfect score. A five-star rating for the horror-comedy, Sundance hit Cooties, from the folks behind such horror films as Saw and Insidious – well… I frankly thought it would be good, but perfect? Yup.
Let it be known, I don’t willy-nilly hand out perfect scores. But if the cootie-infested shoe fits… It’s just that after 24 hours of reflection, nothing has come to mind – post-viewing – of any ingredients which stood out as less than perfect. The film fires on (and succeeds on) all cylinders. And with that observation, there’s simply no reason to deny it the top prize.
Clint (Elijah Wood) is an aspiring writer who lives with his mother. He takes a gig as a summer school substitute at his elementary school alumnus in his small Illinois hometown (the fabulously named Ft. Chicken – the community’s main industry is chicken raising and processing these fowl for consumption). Upon arrival at the school, he’s met with grumpy children, aloof and strange co-workers and a soon-to-be pandemic situation involving the zombification of all of his young wards. In a gross and visually entertaining set-up during the opening credits, we learn the squishy origins of this sickness. And you thought the footage of McDonalds’ infamous pink sludge was nasty to behold. Ugh!
There’s a very strong ensemble cast in Cooties – headed up by Frodo Baggins himself, Elijah Wood (also one of the producers for the film). You’ve got The Office’s Rainn Wilson, Newsroom’s Alison Pill, 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer and Lost’s Jorge Garcia. With not a bad performance or even the slightest acting misstep from this bunch of recognizable faces – as well as a group of amazing child actors – how can you point out just one triumph? This is how…
Leigh Whannell (yes, the creator of the Insidious franchise) steals the show as the very socially awkward science teacher, Doug. In a film infested with snappy one-liners, on-going gags of all kinds and engaging characters, Doug is easily my favorite. Due to certain events in his past, he’s extremely knowledgeable (coming in handy for this survival situation), extremely focused and also extremely strange. The first time we see Doug, he’s reading a book with a title along the lines of “How to Have a Normal Conversation”. And to then see him try to interact with his fellow teachers – well, you’ll just have to see the film to really appreciate all Doug has to offer. Whannell makes Doug entertaining, unique and totally loveable.
It’s always been an unspoken rule that children are safe in horror films. It was Mimic back in the late ‘90s where Guillermo Del Toro famously allowed two children to violently die in his film. Well,Cooties takes that precedent and breaks all of the “it’s okay to bloodily murder children on-screen” records. Not that I have any particular objection to kids (although I do sometimes call small children “petri dishes”), it was a rare joy to see kids (don’t worry, they were all infected) getting whacked to the head and destroyed in any number of creative ways (the gore effects are awesome in Cooties!)
Going in, I was expecting a Shaun of the Dead/”rom-zom-com”-type experience, and like that British triumph, there are some similarities to Cooties’ brilliant comedy. However, I was struck by the comparisons which could be made to the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Obviously, like Zack Snyder’s film, the zombies are runners. There are also several music cues which harkened back to the work of Tyler Bates (the score for Cooties was brilliantly done by Kreng). Cooties had a similar atmosphere (in the more serious moments) to the Snyder effort. Perhaps it’s the characters’ mutual confinement? Or the fact that the characters in Dawn have to silently achieve a goal by going into the sewers, while the teachers of Cooties have to silently achieve a goal by making their way through air ducts. Whatever it is, something struck a chord of familiarity between the two films. With my deep love for Snyder’s debut feature, that’s not a bad thing.
There’s also some fun and biting political and social jabs in the film – giving it that extra oomph of humor. Absent-minded mothers, chatter about the ill-treatment and responsibility of our school teachers and the aforementioned “pink sludge” we eat and feed our children – all make for some hearty laughs. And in between your howling, you’ll pause to reflect (specifically after Wilson’s speech about the perils of teaching) on some of the deeper issues presented.
There are also several pop-culture references in the film and unlike so many movies which try to mock/pay homage to all of the things we love as nerds, Cooties makes them work – but none were so brilliantly written and delivered as the laugh out loud moment between Wade and Clint – something to do with a dwarf-y type of fictional creature which may or may not be related in some small way to actor Elijah Wood. Hint, hint.
Cooties is definitely funny, but not without some sweet and true moments (many of the characters must undertake a journey of change as the story goes on), and some genuine scares and suspense. One of the aforementioned sequences finds two of the characters crawling through the air conditioning system. And as with all such fixtures, there are ventilation grates in various parts of the building, emptying into random rooms which may or may not contain danger. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the “tricycle” scene was rife with suspense. And yes, I found myself pushing back in my chair as my hands moved to cover my eyes. Whew!
Cooties opens in theatres on September 18th. I can’t imagine it won’t become an immediate hit, eventually an enduring cult classic and the beginning of its own successful franchise. The film’s conclusion certainly allows for a continuation of this story, this world and these riotous characters. And once available to own, it’ll make a very welcome and unique addition to any horror geek’s zombie collection (i.e. yours truly).
And I’ll leave you with this one line. You won’t know what it means until you see the film, but once you are brought in on the joke – like myself, you’ll very likely add this bit of dialogue to your everyday repertoire of film quotables:
“Double rear wheel.”
Keep the infection of fun going – go see Cooties!