I never thought I’d advise anyone of this, but: get COOTIES.
For those not immersed in Americana, ‘Cooties’ is the fictional disease you had if you were a child and different from other kids, or messed about with girls. In the United Kingdom it’s known as “The Lurgy”, in Italy La Peste, and in Denmark it’s either Pigelus (“girl lice”) or Drengelus (“boy lice”).
It’s nice to know that kids can be little shits across cultural borders.
With a name like COOTIES, you know you’re in for a comedy-horror, a mixture that isn’t always successful. In this case, however, I thought it really worked, a surprise given it’s a directorial début for Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion.
COOTIES opens with a disgusting montage starting with a lumbering figure through a battery farm, holding a chicken before strangling it. But the disgusting part is to follow, as we see how chicken nuggets are made. Seriously, the process itself is enough to put you off, let alone seeing this green-black infected meat get into the mixture and eventually reach the lunch tray of one hapless fourth-grader named Shelly (Sunny May Allison), living in Fort Chicken, Illinois.
We are then introduced to Clint Hadson (Elijah Wood, MANIAC), a writer who has just returned to his hometown to earn some extra money as a substitute teacher while working on his latest magnum opus, which is apparently about a possessed boat. In an amusing sequence, Clint badgers his mother to say something constructive about his Work In Progress besides “I think it’s wonderful” – and she does, offering a long, detailed critique worthy of any professional editor (it’s this, plus the title of his manuscript – Keel Them All – that makes me think Stephen King isn’t gonna lose any sleep over this newcomer).
Clint goes to school and meets the rest of the faculty: stoner crossing guard Rick (Jorge Garcia, LOST); paranoid Creationism teacher Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad, SNL); gay art teacher Tracy (Jack McBrayer, 30 ROCK); insane Vice-Principal Simms (Ian Brennan, creator of the TV series SCREAM QUEENS), who confiscates the teachers’ cell phones because The Story Demands It; weird sex-ed teacher Doug (Leigh Whannell, from the INSIDIOUS series); bright and bubbly teacher Lucy (Alison Pill, SNOWPIERCER), Clint’s childhood crush; and Wade (Rainn Wilson, THE OFFICE), the obnoxious redneck gym teacher who happens to be dating Lucy.
Clint tries to engage some admiration from his class by mentioning that he’s a writer from New York, but only manages scorn from class bully Patriot (Cooper Roth), so named because he was born on 9/11 and dreams of when he turns eighteen and can “join the Marines and kick Taliban ass”. Until then, however, he keeps himself amused by being an obnoxious little shit, bullying the kids around them, including a sick-looking Shelly, pulling one of her pigtails… right off her head. She turns around, bites him and runs off.
Patriot is left with the school nurse while Clint flirts with Lucy in the staff lounge, and Shelly begins infecting all the other kids in the playground and then attacking teachers watching over them, while Rick sits in his van nearby getting high on ‘shrooms and unsure about what he’s witnessing. When Vice Principal Simms goes out and is literally torn apart by the infected, and the feral Patriot rips out the phone lines and stomps on the cell phones, the remaining teachers within the school realise that the low pay and lack of respect is the least of their worries…
Some have criticised COOTIES, but I can’t see why; for me, it was one of the better horror-comedies in years, which I put down, not to the two directors Milott and Murnion (though they show a talent for staging some effectively creepy sequences, like a slow-motion one where an infected kid runs through the playground, scratching others as he goes along, leading to the first of the teachers’ deaths, as well as numerous gory sight gags).
No, I credit the screenplay, which both embraces and subverts character tropes (like making the lead not a promising writer, but a talentless hack, and the redneck Wade a sympathetic hero) while also coming up with a rational explanation for why the infection isn’t turning adults or pubescent children into ravenous zombies. There’s also a nice message of support for teachers, something you don’t normally hear in movies.
My favourite character is Doug, the sex-ed teacher who casually dissects some of the dead kids and examines their brain tissue (having studied the subject following getting a spike through his own head when he was a kid!). He’s got some decent lines too; it helps that the man playing him, Leigh Whannell, also wrote the script. They even manage a dig at Elijah Wood’s Hobbit days!
The cast was uniformly fine, even the kids, something you don’t see every day. The pace was good, though they could have trimmed a scene or two towards the end, and though Wood was billed as the lead, Wilson’s character gets the meat of the action (it feels a bit like they had made some last-minute script changes to accommodate Rainn Wilson’s relative fame). And it’s nice to know that when they want to be gory and scary, the filmmakers can deliver the goods.
COOTIES is out in theatres and other sources from September 18. The trailer is below.
Directors: Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 8 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 5 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy. Never got Cooties. Drafa Plague, Groat’s disease, The Andromeda Strain and Worry Warts is another story, however.