Jonathan Milott/Cary Murnion
Elijah Wood (Clint), Rainn Wilson (Wade), Alison Pill (Lucy), Jack McBrayer (Tracy), Leigh Whannell (Doug), Nasim Pedrad (Rebekkah), Peter Kwong (Mr. Hitachi), Armani Jackson (Calvin), Jorge Garcia (Rick), Cooper Roth (Patriot)
“It appears the preliminary reports have been confirmed, children are for some reason violently attacking their parents in front of Fort Chicken Elementary. We now have reports of victims around the city and authorities have no idea what is going on. Stay inside, stay in your cars, do not go out- ah AHHH! AHHHHHHH!” – News report midway through the movie. opportunity
Well this ends my coverage of post-apocalyptic movies in 2015, I know I haven’t finished by a long shot. Turbo Kid, Maggie, Z for Zachariah, one of those Divergent… things, there’s still quite a few to go but these four have been ones I’ve been sitting on reviewing for a while and I wanted to clear them out before moving on to other things. I will get to the others in time but this is the end of 2015’s films for now.
Killer children are a great premise for horror, whether you like kids or not, because either they’re a corruption of something sweet and innocent into something monstrous or the overt selfishness and lack of empathy of childhood magnified into some horrific creature. In either case, the concept of children becoming malefic and murderous is disturbing and innately creepy. It’s no surprise that films like The Children, Who Can Kill a Child, People Toys, Beware: Children at Play, The Children of Ravensback, From a Whisper to a Scream, Children of the Corn, and Pet Sematary tap into these concepts.
Cooties is a bird of a different feather, we’ve been treated to violent and disturbing films involving killer children but even Troma in its heydey never tried to turn that concept into a horror-comedy. Something so subversive had never been tried before so a lot of horror movies fans perked up when they heard Saw co-creator Leigh Whannell and Elijah Wood were involved in making just such a film. Wood has been a great new face in the horror genre and his starring turn on the FX remake of Wilfred showed me that he could pull off something dark and what little I’ve seen of Whannell’s output has also shown me that he has the right dark-comic sensibilities to make this kind of thing work.
The premise involves tainted chicken nuggets shipped from the factory in Fort Chicken, Illinois (where the film takes place) to a local elementary school. A little girl eats one of the nuggets and becomes infected with a virus which causes people to turn into sadistic, maniacally laughing, and highly infectious zombie-like creatures. The catch is that the virus only truly effects human beings that haven’t yet reached puberty, adults only become sick to their stomachs and feverish.
The film comes to a head during recess where the infected little girl spreads the virus to her classmates who then rapidly turn on their caretakers and literally devour them. Our hero is Clint (Elijah Wood), a substitute-cum-novelist who showed up on this fateful day to see his childhood friend/flame/crush (it’s never really established), Lucy (Alison Pill) an insufferably positive teacher who is dating the standoffish every-gym-teacher-ever alpha male Wade (Rainn Wilson.) There’s also a girl who just made it past the cutoff date to not turn into a zombie, a little boy who was studying in the library at recess when everything went down, Lost’s Jorge Garcia as a crossing guard who spends the entire movie sitting in a van tripping out on psychotropic mushrooms, Leigh Whannell as a weirdo science teacher, and Jack McBrayer and Nasim Pedrad.
What’s that? I didn’t give descriptions of McBrayer’s and Pedrad’s characters? No, I’m sorry, it was the writers who dropped that particular ball. McBrayer’s character Tracy is gay, it’s not what I’d call an overt characteristic but there’s a gay joke near the beginning, he faints at the sight of Whannel’s character pulling the brain out of a dead kid, and in a bit that baffingly made it in the trailer blurts out “I’m gay!” as they suit up to go out and face the children. So the movie apparently wants that to be our takeaway from his character. Pedrad plays Rebekkah, her introduction seems to want us to think of her as a shrew, she points out to Clint that she has a rape-alert button on her jacket in case he gets handsy, but much like McBrayer she mostly spends the rest of the movie reacting to things and doing literally nothing else. This is a massive waste of two very funny comedic actors, Pedrad in-particular is great at playing larger-than-life blowhards and is one of the most talented physical comedians I’m aware of having her just mug for the camera when somebody dies so that the people who showed up expecting a broad comedy don’t freak out is a poor use of her abilities. I’d say they’re expendable but once we whittle down to our core group of characters it becomes clear that none of these people are in any danger.
Leigh Whannell’s Doug is a similarly problematic creation in that it’s clear the writers never actually figured out what his deal is meant to be. He nonchalantly points out that the kids are eating the teachers as if he’s unable to recognize that that’s a bad thing, later he references a childhood brain injury as a reason why he sometimes uses the wrong words (something he only does in that particular scene), he keeps telling people to stop talking when they aren’t talking, when he first appears he’s reading a guide on how to have normal conversations and attempts to awkwardly make small-talk with Clint and Lucy, he has a disturbing level of knowledge on viruses and pandemics which seem to suggest some sort of autism, but later he’s reacting just like everyone else to the events. Does he have Asperger’s? Does he have brain damage? Is he just weird? The movie can’t seem to settle on anything and it becomes very clear that the writers just invented a “Guy Who Knows Things” character and then just reached for some character quirks to explain it. Whannell also does a pretty poor job of giving the character life, I get that he’s kind of emotionally flat by nature but he doesn’t come across as cluelessly weird as he really should. Stupidly enough, the ideal actor to play this sort of character is right next to him the whole time. This movie would benefit largely from having Leigh Whannell and Jack McBrayer switch roles.
Alison Pill and Elijah Wood give good performances but they’re given very little to work with. Wood gets what feels like a castoff Anton Yelchin role (that’s not a jab at Yelchin, it’s a jab at the people who generally cast him) whose pathetic qualities are only eclipsed by his unlikable qualities. Clint is an asshole and his mid-movie realization that he is an asshole doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of how much of an asshole he truly is. I have no idea why anybody thought this should be our protagonist. Lucy fares a little better than Clint but that’s because she really only has one defining characteristic: her overbearing pleasantness. Of course there’s a reversal of that trait meant to evoke a hidden depth but it’s really just the same character arc that Marion Ramsey went through in every single Police Academy movie. There’s an attempt at a romantic bond between the two but the movie chickens out and that’s because of Wade.
Wade is obviously meant to be the human villain of this movie, he’s crass and a jerk. But the thing is that he’s more likable than Clint and though he’s clearly a blowhard and a meathead he’s the best character in the movie. He has a scene with Lucy midway through where they discuss their relationship and it’s a tremendously humanizing moment which really makes you root for the guy. It would seem that the writers only realized once they got Rainn Wilson in costume on set that he was the film’s secret strength and it feels like they rewrote his arc on the fly going so far as to (SPOILERS UNTIL THE END OF THE PARAGRAPH) reverse his valiant death at the end and have him inexplicably return relatively unharmed to give the dramatic “throwing the match” one-liner. Rainn Wilson is the best part of this movie, echoing Rob Corddry’s surprising turn in the similarly tonally confused dark comedy Operation: Endgame. It was smart for them to not throw the character under the bus either in his eventual fate or the state of his relationship but as a result Clint’s shoestring-thin reason for being the protagonist disappears.
As I said above, doing the killer kids angle as a horror comedy is difficult. Kid deaths in movies can be and often are funny because they’re often so over-the-top disturbing and bleak that they inspire laughter (or they’re just dumbly executed) but when played for laughs they can turn out to be relatively horrifying (look to Freaked and Freddy Got Fingered.) Cooties remains fairly noncommittal on these things, not really focusing much on the actual acts or the kids as actual people and obscuring any violence, the only exception is to the film’s villain of sorts Patriot who gets dispatched fairly uncomfortably (which is saying something as his character is intentionally abhorrent.) The only bit where this really goes too far is a scene from the trailer where a kid gets in his mother’s car and rather than just killing her, infects his toddler brother who dispatches her. It’s obscured like all the rest but the sounds of flesh ripping and a toddler squealing in pain followed by a cut-away to our cast’s over-the-top reactions of fear and disgust is far more upsetting than just showing the kid scratch the toddler and it attack the mother.
That is Cooties’ greatest weakness; as a comedy it’s pretty bad. The jokes are far too broad and hackneyed to work in such a subversive premise and it falls back on lame bits like Rainn Wilson’s inability to say “dual rear wheel” or a character announcing that he’ll be okay because he does Crossfit before dying moments later. While Leigh Whannell isn’t a comedy phenom I’m not inclined to blame this on him, I’m inclined to blame it on co-writer Ian Brennan – the creator of and writer for both Glee and Scream Queens: two of the most aggressively unfunny shows on television right now. Brennan isn’t incapable of writing good comedy, he’s just really bad at it. The closest thing to good material in the film center around his character; a vice-principal who tries way too hard to come off as cool and relateable. (Subtext!) The broadness of the comedy feels like Brennan’s work and very broad jokes paired with such a dark premise makes the whole affair come off with a tone that’s less gallows humor and more bad taste.
However, Cooties’ greatest strength feeds off of its weakness. It’s a pretty solid horror movie and in its inept attempts to be funny it just comes off that much more horrifying. The kid-zombies are terrifying, especially Patriot, and the way they’re not just mindless flesh eating zombies but fully cognitive creatures who are going out of their way to be malicious (and obviously enjoying it) just makes them that that much creepier. Now of course when the movie tries really hard to be scary it doesn’t quite work: a scene involving a cavernous vent system, a tricycle, and some questionable geography just feels overdone.
Then there’s the “message” portion of the movie. There seems to be an attempt to make it out that today’s children are already little monsters and that teachers are under-appreciated for the unquestionably hard job they have. Teachers are under-appreciated and they do have an extremely hard job but putting up our characters as examples of those teachers just feels hollow. Our characters are all selfish jerks who barely seem to care about the kids they’re teaching in the first place. The kids are played as pretty bad but considering that every adult in the movie is portrayed as barely even tolerating or acknowledging children to begin with it really comes across as their own fault. Weirdly it’s the earnest dramatic beats sporadically spread throughout the film that really hit. I have no idea why these scenes work as they’re not remotely earned. I’m just going to have to give the nod to the actors there because it certainly isn’t writing that helps bring them across.
I love and hate this movie in equal measure and that frustrates me to no end. I’m glad I don’t do scores for these things as I have no idea how to quantify my feelings here. The writing is awful and the tone is a mess from beginning to end but there are fits and gasps of greatness peppered in there and considering that this is the first movie that co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion have ever directed I’d say it went pretty well. It’s a hard premise to get right and I think they did better than they could’ve, especially since it seems that the script was terrible. I’m tentatively interested in what the directors might accomplish further on down the line.
Cooties is a disappointment but I can’t get it out of my head and I feel the urge to watch it again, albeit not immediately. This will adorn one of the reluctant spots on my shelf but it’s too interesting and ultimately entertaining for its badness to completely ruin everything. If you’re in this for a creepy killer kids movie then just go find a copy of Who Can Kill a Child? or The Children, but if you’re looking for a movie that feels like a cross between Bad Teacher and Bad Meat which narrowly manages to be better than the two of those combined then I guess you could do worse than Cooties.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“We leave at dawn, anyone not with us will be hunted down and gutted like a lizard.”
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