Catch it if you can
There was a time when you could count the fingers of great horror/comedy hybrids on the fingers of one severed hand: Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London, Tremors, Evil Dead 2 (and/or 3) and maybe Creepshow or Killer Klowns from Outer Space – if you’re feeling generous. Then, about five years after the release of Shaun of the Dead – which is indisputably funny, but not that scary – an entire generation of up-and-coming filmmakers seemed to master one of cinema’s trickiest balancing acts. Suddenly, everywhere we looked, there were funny/scary films bursting through the floorboards and walls and into cinemas: Tucker and Dale vs Evil, Piranha 3D, Zombieland, The Cabin in the Woods, What We Do in the Shadows, Housebound, Warm Bodies, All Cheerleaders Die, The Final Girls, Deathgasm, TurboKid … the list goes on. They’re not all classics, by any means – let’s be honest, Zombeavers was no Zombieland – but the new generation of comedy/horror hybrids seem to have just the right ratio of “scary” to “funny” – and Cooties is among the best of the new breed.
Directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion from a screenplay by Leigh Whannell (Saw) and Ian Brennan (Scream Queens), Cooties takes the fictional childhood disease (as in “Eww, you’ve got cooties!”) as the why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-this-before jumping off point for a hilariously subversive and gleefully gory scattergun satire about kids, schools, teachers, Creationism, conceal-and-carry laws, and… fast food.
Horror fan Elijah Wood plays Clint (whose name, written in capitals on a blackboard, provides one of the film’s many visual gags), an aspiring author who’s slumming as a substitute teacher for a middle school in his old home town of Fort Chicken, Illinois, while working on a horror novel “about a guy who buys a boat, but the boat turns out to be possessed.” Having met his fellow teachers (variously played by Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill (Newsroom), Jack McBrayer (30 Rock), Nasim Pedrad (Scream Queens), Whannell and Brennan), Clint finds first period interrupted by an altercation between two students, one of whom tries to eat the other kid’s face off.
Before he can say “Guys, I’m a writer who moved here from New York City, I’m way cooler than your regular teacher, this day could’ve been super fun,” all of the kids seem to have succumbed to an outbreak of a horrific and highly contagious disease, contracted from an infected chicken nugget, which turns them into raging, psychotic monsters with a cannibalistic blood lust – but, you know, even worse than normal middle school kids. With hours to go before the parents show up to collect their little darlings, it’s up to Clint and the rest of the faculty to try and control the demonic li’l critters – pretty much their regular job, but with more blood and guts – until the bell rings, or someone says the magic words: “Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you’ve got your cooties shot.”
Thrillingly, Cooties is one of those films that gets everything right, starting with the script: many well-paid comedy writers could learn a lesson from Whannell and Brennan, who simply refuse to let a single line make it into the final script if there’s any way to improve it. Then there are the actors, who don’t seem like an obvious fit on paper – “together at last: Frodo Baggins, Dwight Schrute from The Office and Hurley from Lost!” – but work so well together, you’ll wish they were the cast of a new TV show so you could watch them every week. Then there’s the exuberant direction from first-timers Milott and Murnion, Lyle Vincent’s crisp cinematography, note-perfect music from Kreng (aka Pepijn Caudron), and spot-on special effects from a team led by industry veteran Josh Hakian.
Smart, funny, gory, and endlessly quotable, it’s everything a cult horror/comedy should be.
You’ll want to catch it as soon as possible.
COOTIES is on US VOD now and on UK DVD from October 12