Friday, October 9, 2015

Shocktober Review: Cooties

 Give Cooties this: it brings an approach to horror comedies that hasn't been done to death before. In fact, it might even be novel in the "evil children" subgenre, because of the way the menace is presented. If you want to call it a "zombie" movie - and I don't, for reasons I'll get to shortly - it's been since Dawn of the Dead that I can really remember a movie that featured undead children attacking adults. But then again, since I'd say this is a little more 28 Days Later than Dawn of the Dead, we'll have to put that to the side. Also feel free to school me in all of the "zombie children" movies I am forgetting. The point is that premise-wise, Cooties feels like a breath of fresh air. It's just a shame that so much of the film is uneven, ruining the fun.

 After having a go as a writer in New York, Clint (Elijah Wood) is taking some time to focus in his hometown of Fort Chicken. In a twist, he's living upstairs, and not in his parents' basement, but it's littered with geek friendly posters and toys, presumably when he was younger. Clint is working on his novel, about a guy who buys a killer boat (as a character points out later, "so it's Christine?" and Clint replies, "well no, this is a boat"). Honestly, the book sounds awful from what we hear him working on, but it's supposed to. To make a little money, he signs up to be a substitute teacher at the same elementary school he went to, and on his first day he meets a slightly less than welcoming faculty: P.E. coach Wade (Rainn Wilson), alarmist Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad), science teacher Doug (screenwriter Leigh Whannell), and, uh, whatever Tracy (Jack McBrayer) teaches. Vice Principal Simms (Ian Brennan) confiscates his phones ("if the students can't have them, neither should we") and crosswalk guard Rick (Jorge Garcia) mistakes Clint for his drug dealer.

 The only person who seems happy to see Clint is Lucy (Allison Pill), who it turns out he knew taught there. They went to school together, and she's very impressed that he's been living in the big city. She's also dating Wade, who introduces himself to Clint by parking him in with a huge truck (there's a running joke about Wade being unable to say "dual rear wheel"). He's hostile to Clint, but he might have a good reason, since Clint is clearly flirting with Lucy, and she's flirting back. But then it's time for classes, and elementary school is not how Clint remembered it. The first student he runs across is named Patriot ("born on 9/11") who wrote "Eat a Cock" on his window and still has his phone. The other students are even less polite, except the girl who has some serious boils on her face. And her hair falls out. Then she bites Patriot on the cheek.

 It turns out she ate a tainted chicken nugget, one we saw during the opening montage, and as Doug surmises later, the disease infected her brain, turning her into a zombie-like rage monster. Doug does imply their brains are dead and turning to mush, but considering how much of Patriot's personally exists throughout the movie, you're closer to Return of the Living Dead Part 2 "zombie" territory (see, I remembered another one!). I'm still of the mind it's more 28 Days Later, and this is a live virus - traditional zombie rules don't apply. Head shots are not necessary, just violence against children.

  The teachers are trapped inside, while Rick sits in his van tripping on mushrooms. The police are no help and the only parent who arrives at 3:00 is quickly dispatched of, thanks to her inattentive use of phones and tablets. They have to navigate the corridors, and when Patriot lets the infected inside, their options are limited to a Die Hard inspired trip through the air ducts. While Clint and Lucy are trying to get Wade's keys, Doug discovers that the disease only infects children who haven't reached puberty yet, which is why Clint's bite only made him very sick for a few hours.

 Cooties suffers from an unusual tonal dissonance, but not necessarily from the plot. The film itself is more or less a straight up horror comedy, deriving most of its laughs from a combination of vulgarity and extreme violence directed at the children. Where it stumbles is the characters, and it's not clear if that's because of the decisions made by the actors or if it was inherent in Whannell's screenplay. Half of the cast makes a concerted effort not to be stereotypes: the man-child, the meathead coach, the "kooky" science teacher, and the other half just embrace their one note characters. Wilson tries very hard to keep Wade from being the character we immediately expect him to be the moment his truck parks Clint in, but it takes most of the film before there's any kind of validation that he's not just a stock "type".

 I understand that there's a separate, infected / zombie children story and that you need to put things in order, but Clint, Lucy, and particularly Wade aren't fleshed out until late in the film, at which point the scene in the library feels like it's disrupting the narrative, rather than serving it. Compare it with a throwaway line from Doug, given in the middle of explaining what they're up against, that contextualizes his character without a long conversation over walkie-talkies. It's not unwelcome to have a horror comedy that makes the effort to establish its characters a little bit, but the it happens in Cooties is uneven at best. That also, unfortunately, applies to the structure of the film, particularly its third act.

 By necessity, I'm going to have to enter SPOILER territory to discuss the end of the movie, so be warned. Skip down a few paragraphs if you just want the wrap up. SPOILERS AHOY!

 While I can understand the decision to leave the school for the last act, I'm not convinced it was a good idea. The mad dash out, coupled with leaving Fort Chicken, introducing Danville, the next town over, covering the spread of the epidemic, and creating a new "you're doomed" scenario happens within the span of about ten minutes. In a lot of ways, it removes the tension of the confined space while Clint and company are in the school. It also unsatisfactorily resolves the Patriot story line with an almost perfunctory scene between towns. Yes, Clint has a great callback line and the kill is a good one, but there's something about the sudden change in scenery and the fact that it's resolved so quickly (Wade's truck does all of the work) that renders it less significant than it was built up to be.

 I honestly wouldn't have minded if where they were going had any relevancy other than to demonstrate the virus had spread, but it doesn't. There's a half-hearted attempt to put Doug in the same place as the tainted nuggets, but it's more in the service of getting them into another "oh shit" scenario. The reveal of where they ended up - a Chuck-E Cheese-like indoor playground - is a tense moment, but that too is disrupted almost immediately by the surprise return of the not dead Wade who somehow figured out where they were and is now in Rick's van. (His explanation that "I always know where my truck is" doesn't really give them a pass). Everything is resolved so quickly that there's not really time to appreciate that Wade just immolated an entire jungle gym's worth of infected kids. Again, I appreciate the idea behind it, but the tonal and spatial shift don't really jibe with most of Cooties.


 Character development bumps aside, there are a lot of things to like about the cast of Cooties. Leigh Whannell, in particular is a lot of fun as the "not quite there" Doug. He's introduced in the teacher's lounge reading a book called How to Talk Like a Human Being, and the payoff for why he's so off-kilter is actually a good one. Novel even, because I can't recall many characters who seem that gimmicky to have such a logical explanation why. Elijah Wood and Allison Pill ground the movie, even if Clint and Lucy are more of a collection of "character quirks" than anything cohesive. Once we finally get to know Wade - two thirds of the way into Cooties - Rainn Wilson has the opportunity to make him memorable and not just stereotypical and runs with it. They fare better than McBrayer, Pedrad, and Garcia, who have pretty much one note to play throughout the film. There's nothing necessarily wrong with their performances, but I doubt you'll remember much about them once Cooties is over. It's a bit like when you realize the (one) police officer who shows up is the guy who played Badger on Breaking Bad: funny for a minute, but quickly forgotten.

 Cooties is a little too lopsided as a horror comedy - it's only really funny towards the end, but when it is, I fully admit that it can be very funny. That is, provided you have a particularly misanthropic streak towards children. There's some tension in the first half that sustains the build up of the "zombie" plague, hampered a bit by character beats but ultimately effective as long as they're in the school. Things kind of fall apart in the last act as the film jumps around, tonally and visually, but in the end Cooties is amusing. Perhaps not memorable, but a fun trifle if you're looking for a decent horror comedy with an ensemble that came ready to play. In that regard, I suppose it's fitting I saw it on VOD: not to denigrate the quality of the "On Demand" movement, but I'm more forgiving of Cooties' problems than I would be having seen it in theatres.

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