By god, Cooties has a clever premise. The childhood phobia of physical contact with a member of the opposite sex, represented by a fictional disease that for some reason vanishes when you hit puberty (and said physical contact becomes a priority, not a danger) is taken deadly seriously in Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s new horror movie.
Or actually, strike that: the movie is goofy as hell, but the notion of a dangerous virus that only affects children is taken seriously enough to jumpstart a sequence of often hilarious, sometimes disappointingly constructed events that makes Cooties a clever idea for a movie first and foremost, and an actually good one distant second. The discordant contrast between Cooties’ wacky tone and genuine threats never quite coalesce into something truly unique and special, and often outright fight each other for dominance, but it’s damned entertaining to watch if nothing else.
Elijah Wood plays a substitute teacher who fancies himself a writer, despite never having published anything and first-draft manuscript – about a haunted boat – that sounds just awful. He’s returned to his childhood elementary school as a member of the ruling class, comprised of well-meaning but off-kilter teachers like a grating conservative (Nasim Pedrad), a barely closeted art teacher (Jack McBrayer), a gym-teaching alpha male (Rainn Wilson), a perpetually sunny object of affection (Alison Pill), and a probable serial killer played by screenwriter Leigh Whannell, who has a tendency to write himself into the best parts of his movies.
When tainted chicken nuggets infect the students with cooties at recess, the teachers are trapped inside the school, trying to figure out what the hell is going on and not kill all their pupils in the process. Whannell and co-writer Ian Brennan (who also cameos as the school principal) relish in putting Cooties’ cast in one contrived but funny conflict after another. The bitching reaches memorable heights, the love triangle solidifies into a sturdy and unexpectedly rich character piece for Rainn Wilson, and everyone gets to yell silly things at one another on more than one occasion.
But Cooties spends so much time enjoying the cast’s comic sensibilities that the cynical situations and ultraviolence eventually feel at odds with most of the wacky hijinx. Milott and Murnion indulge in gruesome imagery of pre-teen cannibalism and jumping rope with an intestine, and particularly seem to enjoy the eerie sequence in which the whole student body gets infected with cooties and rips the faculty apart. And yet at times it seems like the real joke would have been taking the absurd premise more seriously than Cooties actually does, no matter how amusing it is to see teachers fashioning weapons from common elementary school items and eventually tearing into the student bodies with zeal.
Indeed, despite the game comedic cast, the amusing dialogue and the over the top gore effects, the best part of Cooties is the filmmakers’ affection for the plight of teachers before the massacre begins, and the genuine cynicism aimed at asshole kids who take advantage of their substitutes. The notion of a school full of children who literally want to and suddenly do kill their teachers needed to be cartoonish in order to be even remotely palatable, but it expresses with aplomb the rarely expressed rage that stems from being forced into daily confinement with a community that doesn’t understand you and often resents your very presence. Whether you assume that last statement refers to the children or their teachers, it feels apt, and Cooties takes pleasure in illustrating the darkest corners of that natural, disquieting frustration.
Fortunately, the rest of the film – though hectic, hodgepodge and sometimes poorly explained – is nearly pleasurable enough to match.