It starts with a screeching chicken and a dimly lit poultry farm and the kind of stomach-turning opening credits sequence that makes a pretty solid argument for the merits of vegetarianism. Set in the apparently poultry-centric small town of Fort Chicken (“Chick It Out!”), Jonathan Miliott and Cary Murnion’s ‘Cooties’ (mostly) cleverly combines bits of old school horror, killer kid flicks, and deadpan humor for its amusing and gory tale of kids gone totally wild. And no, all the circles and dots in the world can’t save you from these rabid elementary schoolers, because no schoolyard tricks will satiate their hunger.
Elijah Wood toplines the talented comedic cast as Clint, a struggling wannabe novelist who has slunk back to his hometown after a stint in Brooklyn, and while he’s more than happy to tell people he’s a writer from New York City now, it’s clear things are not working out quite so well for him. Shacked up in his mom’s guesthouse, Clint has taken a summer job substitute teaching at his old elementary school, and ‘Cooties’ picks up on his very first day. It will be a memorable (and deadly – dun dun DUN!) one.
Clint isn’t exactly jazzed on pedagogical theory; he’s far more concerned with his book about a possessed seafaring craft (his drive to school, in which he tries to work out the novel’s opening line – “The boat was evil” – is a highlight of the film and a testament to Wood’s ever-growing comedic chops). Summer school is a good fit – laidback, short-sleeved, relaxed – but it’s evident early on that things are already more than just a little bit weird at the friendly-looking small town school, and that’s not all to blame on the rancid chicken nuggets that have rendered one little student drippy, crusty, and hungry for more than just poultry. The teacher’s lounge is filled with misfits and misanthropes, from Rainn Wilson’s countrified athletic director, Alison Pill’s peppy previous classmate of Clint’s, Leigh Whannell’s perpetually confused Doug, Nasim Pedrad’s oddly uptight Rebekkah, and Jack McBrayer’s accidentally inappropriate Tracy. ‘Cooties’ is all about chemistry, really, and it would be fun to watch this group of funny people go through any situation together, but the plot that subsequently unfolds is amusing enough on its own, and only bolstered by its large pool of talent.
The tainted chicken nuggets have wrecked havoc on a young student in Clint’s class, and when she takes a bite out of the smart-mouthed Patriot (Cooper Roth), true madness is just moments from unleashing itself. Soon the playground is filled with ravenous little maniacs, tiny tots overcome by some sort of evil virus that has rendered them bloodthirsty and intent on wiping out the adult population. The only people who can save the school (and maybe even the world?) are Clint and his band of merry idiots, watching the carnage helplessly from inside.
The rest of ‘Cooties’ unfolds much like any other zombie movie, with Clint and company attempting to formulate plans, hide from the monsters, and warn the outside world of what is happening inside the school. Keeping the film mostly on school grounds appropriately limits the action, and there are plenty of places and spaces to explore, all with the menacing growls of zombie kids screeching in the background. It’s wholly unsurprising that the film comes with a script by Ian Brennan (who helped create television’s ‘Glee’ and pops up in a small, but memorable role) and Leigh Whannell (known for his work on horror franchises like ‘Saw’ and ‘Insidious,’ and who also co-stars in the film), because when ‘Cooties’ is at its very best, it’s a seamless blend of humor and horror, big laughs and appropriately-sized terrors.
While ‘Cooties’ loses some of its bite around the third act — with some unnecessary revelations and a location change slowing down its momentum and what seems to be a major plot hole — the first hour or so of it is dead funny and a welcome entry into the horror comedy (hor-medy? com-ror?) genre. These kids are killer, the cast is deadly funny, and it’s indeed all a bloody good time.
‘Cooties’ premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.