Tuesday, October 20, 2015

This Job’ll Kill Ya: Cooties

Elijah Wood fending off a zombie child in Cooties.

A lot was riding on Cooties for me. I’m sure I’m not alone in being good and done with the zombie horror craze, so when I heard about the conceit of this latest effort, I thought, ok, this is it. This is the last twist on the genre that hasn’t been done yet. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt on the strength of its bonkers premise alone. It really is an incredible idea for a zombie film: a batch of contaminated chicken nuggets transmits a virus to schoolchildren that turns them into murderous, flesh-hungry fiends, and a group of teachers must band together to survive and escape. Amazing! The mind boggles at why the world of horror comedy hasn’t taken a crack at this already, except that it’s only in recent years that the distribution platforms exist to push something this outwardly “offensive” through into theatres and homes as an independent, niche genre film, rather than having to try and convince a studio to bankroll it – or to have it die a slow death running in seedy midnight movie circles.

So, Cooties had both a lot of potential and a lot to live up to. It’s only partially successful, and it might have something to do with it not being quite as offensive as I expected. The cutely ironic transition of the nasty, mouthy brats of Fort Chicken Elementary into actual little monsters did deliver some fantastic gore effects, and there was plenty of opportunity for teacher-on-zombie/student violence – but Cooties doesn’t quite push it far enough, keeping the emotion light and the body count low enough to disqualify it from true classic territory. It’s so close to being the amazingly funny, memorably gory cult film it wants to be, but like Elijah Wood’s substitute teacher character, Clint, it just can’t follow through.

Most of this is due to the dropped plot points and superfluous character arcs that plague the script like their own kind of deadly virus. Clint is in the process of failing at being a novelist, returning from a thankless teaching job in New York to his hometown of Fort Chicken to live at his mother’s house and try to bang out the rest of his asinine horror story idea about a possessed sailboat. He takes a substitute job at the aforementioned elementary school – his alma mater – partly to feel less useless and partly to reconnect with his grade school crush, Lucy (Allison Pill), who is now teaching there. His hopes are dashed when he learns that she’s dating the gym teacher, Wade (a mustachioed and comically-masculine Rainn Wilson). This awkward love triangle produces great laughs, but ultimately never goes anywhere. Ditto for the uninfected pair of kids the teachers save, the revelation that the virus only affects the prepubescent, and Jorge Garcia’s tripped-out crossing guard, who pretty much never interacts with the other characters and spends the film trying to figure out if the carnage he witnesses from the safety of his spray-painted van is real, or just the mushrooms getting to him.

Rainn Wilson, Elijah Wood, and Alison Pill on Cooties.

Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion demonstrate a deft hand at action and deliver one or two truly awesome kills, but the horror element of the film is weaker than it should be (probably due to the script’s inability to execute on the pathos it goes for – I didn’t really care that much about the characters, so the stakes never felt very high). This is okay, though, because the comedy element is exceptionally strong. Cooties never misses an opportunity to mine its absurd premise for laughs, whether it’s a surreal and hilarious montage of kids still having fun after the mayhem begins, jumping rope with a teacher’s intestines, or the simple joy of seeing the sunny Jack McBrayer whip a horde of frenzied children in the face with a flail made from gym equipment, screaming “YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!” The runaway scene-stealer is definitely science teacher Doug (co-creenwriter Leigh Whannell), whose crippling social ineptitude (he’s introduced reading a book called “How To Have A Normal Conversation.” and begins a joke by saying “What’s got two thumbs and killed a prostitute?”) disguises a wealth of suspiciously-specific knowledge about zombie biology and viral pandemics.

The clear benchmark for inspiration in terms of tone and impact was the incredible Shaun of the Dead (2004), but Cooties never plumbs the same depths of genuine character work nor manages to make the switch to scary or tense in so effortless and convincing a way. The fun comes from its sense of guilty transgression – the combination of the silly delight of the premise (“No, but, what if cooties were actually a thing, you know?”) and the film’s ability to get away with showing adults murdering hordes of ravenous children. Granted, Cooties attempts to make a comment about how hard teaching is, and will probably provoke an immensely satisfying kind of repressed catharsis in any educator or child worker who sees it. But, as with its horror and drama elements, the film doesn’t quite go far enough with it – meaning that it’s a very funny but ultimately disappointing whack at the cranium of horror comedy.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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