Thursday, February 16, 2017


Cooties (2014)
Dir. Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion
Written by Leigh Whannell, Ian Brennan
Starring Elijah Wood, Alison Pil, Rainn Wilson, Morgan Lilly, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell

This poster is almost a parody of what comically terrible, low-effort photoshop would look like on a movie poster.

COOTIES is part of an increasingly pervasive invasion of movies --almost certainly underwritten by the Kremlin to destroy our resolve as Americans-- which follow in the footsteps of 2004’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD and 2009’s ZOMBIELAND to comprise a subgenre now known as the Zom-Com, or, often, the Zom-Rom-Com. As we discussed in the badly-named but fun WYRMWOOD: ROAD OF THE DEAD, you can’t throw a gnawed-off finger these days without hitting some smirking wannabe clever Zombie riff with some stupid gimmick and a low-effort pun for a title. This trend was quite frankly getting a little tedious ten years ago, and yet for some reason we’re still going with no end in sight. ZOMBEAVERS, really? That’s a pun which would strain to get a chuckle out of a room of stoned teenagers, and yet lucky us, we get a whole movie about it.

But COOTIES, I must admit, has a pretty good hook -- it’s about a zombie outbreak which occurs in an elementary school and specifically targets only the children, pitting the teachers against a raging, homicidal horde their former wards. As a one-time public school teacher myself, I can safely say that this is already how teachers feel, so it’s nice to have some art which offers a little catharsis. Plus, as a horror fan, there are few come-ons more tempting than the question of who can will a child? It’s exactly the kind of inherently sensitive topic which a good horror comedy should be able to tweak some gleeful bad taste from. Good (or even decent) Horror-comedies are pretty rare, of course, but if we’re coasting on outrageous content I think we can safely accept over-the-top zombie child kills as acceptable horror fare, even if the auterial intent is naughty snickering instead of spine-melting terror.

Indeed, COOTIES is much more comedy than horror in tone, and, like its obvious predecessor ZOMBIELAND, doesn’t even seem particularly interested in its horror elements, except as a plot device. It’s not in any sense a parody, nor does it have any real drive to examine or push the genre’s form. In fact, it doesn’t much appear to be made by anyone with a lot of understanding or affection for horror films in general (of the creative team, only SAW writer Leigh Whannell has any previous professional experience with the genre) nor does much of its humor derive from any particulars of its horror scenario. The plot is as boilerplate as these things come: a group of teachers get caught in a zombie student uprising during the school day, and have to grudgingly work together to survive and escape. But that’s mostly just a framework for the movie to coast on -- the comedy comes from the broadly-drawn stereotypes the movie throws into this situation: nebbish aspiring novelist Clint (Elijah Wood, MANIAC), his vaguely-defined romantic interest Lucy (Alison Pil, Zelda Fitzgerald in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS), her inexplicably assholish boyfriend Wade (Rainn Wilson, SUPER), the gay guy (Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock), the shrill right winger (Nasim Pedrad, SNL), the awkward weirdo (Leigh Whannell, THE BYE BYE MAN), and the holy shit what the fuck were they thinking regressive racist caricature (Peter Kwong, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA).

If that sounds a tad sit-communist to you, I can only commend you on your keen powers of observation. But just because COOTIES is entirely comprised of one hack premise haphazardly stuffed into another hack premise, doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. Sometimes lazy writing can still be funny in the right hands, and it turns out that Wood, Pil, Wilson, McBrayer, Whannell and Pedrad are indeed the right hands for this.* They all seem to realize that they’re playing cardboard-thin stock types (McBrayer has literally nothing but gay jokes) and correctly redirect their focus from acting to entertaining. With this script and premise, entertaining was all it could ever hope to be, and entertaining it is, with each actor playing their required type with enthusiasm and a singleminded focus on generating amusement from whatever’s handy, resulting in gags about speech impediments, stoners, obnoxious right-wingers, wannabe artists, and yes, poop. Lowbrow? Sure, but not without its charm. It’s brisk, energetic, and liberally sodden with featherweight goofiness.

That’s not a bad thing -- in fact, I quite enjoyed its breezy 88 minutes. But for a movie which seems to really, really want to be a transgressive midnight movie, it’s hard not to notice that it’s just not really mean --or imaginative-- enough to make the grade. If you want to see child killing, there’s a little in there, but the movie is pretty squeamish about it and mostly dodges the many opportunities the scenario presents. In fact, while it doesn’t completely eschew the expected zombie gore, it doesn’t really linger on it either, or seem especially interested in cultivating any big fright moments. It’s far more interested in the boilerplate romantic triangle between Wood, Pil, and Wilson which provides most of the narrative conflict. That’s where its priorities lie, for better or worse.

I have mixed feelings about how well that works. The result, of course, is a film which seems to be a horror film in a surprisingly offhanded sort of way, like they used the zombie setup as a convenient story structure to frame the quirky comedy they really wanted to make. But while the comedy is clearly the movie’s strong suit, I can’t in good conscience say it’s any great shakes either. It’s amusing in its broad, silly sort of way, but that’s mostly a result of the winning performances of the cast, more than the inherent worth of the material. If it weren’t for the zombies, this would absolutely not be a story worth telling, and yet the zombies feel weirdly sidelines and underutilized, which makes the whole thing feel slight and underbaked. It’s cheerful and ingratiating, but there’s something wrong with your zombie movie when the most unique thing in it is the socially awkward weirdo character played by Leigh Whannell, who is introduced reading a book called “How To Carry A Normal Conversation.” That’s very nearly identical to a joke I wrote for a short school play in 6th grade, but at least it’s still a funny one. Should we be shooting for more ambitious comedy than a lazy 6th-grader? Maybe, but I guess a joke that works is still a joke that works. COOTIES is not a bad way to waste an afternoon, but one can’t help wish the ambitions here were a little more robust.

* No offense to Kwong, who admirably commits to a character too fundamentally ill-conceived be salvaged.  

I'd watch the shit out of the movie that this poster advertises.

Good Kill Hunting

You Are What They Eat. and Please Don’t Feed The Children
Sure, whatever.
Zombies, horror-comedy
Elijah Wood? I mean, it seems like he’s done nothing but horror movies since his LotR days, but I think he’s still a pretty big deal, right?
Leigh Whannell. And I think we probably have to count Wood too by this point.
Just children
Zombies, but they’re the “infected” running variety
Just people into zombies
Who can kill a child? Pretty much anyone, if the little fucker is persistent enough in trying to bite you.

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