Co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s debut feature Cooties made some waves at last year’s Sundance and was picked up by Lionsgate, who generously gave the filmmakers more time (and money) to shoot a new ending. This brand new cut premiered as the opening night film of the 2015 Stanley Film Festival and holy hell what a way to kick off the festivities. Horror comedies are a tough package sometimes, but the creative team behind Cooties, which includes Leigh Whannell and Glee creator Ian Brennan, have crafted a thrilling and satisfying satire.
After a truly nauseating title sequence that’s sure to turn some viewers into vegetarians, we’re introduced to Clint (Elijah Wood), whose dreams of being a novelist have landed him back at his mother’s house in Chicken Fort, Illinois. I wouldn’t call Clint a “failed” writer – his eyes sparkle when he talks about his book about a possessed boat – just maybe a naïve one. Wood is great as this sort of enthusiastic loser and as the film plays out his transformation into a would-be hero is entertaining to watch.
Clint’s first day as a substitute teacher at Chicken Fort Elementary starts off innocently enough. Well, not really. Someone writes “Eat a Cock” on the windshield of his Prius before he can get out of it and the other teachers are not so welcoming. They’re all Midwestern caricatures, but the actors embody the shit out of them, making them feel fresh.
Clint tries to rekindle the flame with his childhood sweetheart Lucy (Alison Pill), only to find she’s dating the off-putting gym teacher Wade (Rainn Wilson). The love triangle here makes up the film’s emotional core. Also making up the teacher’s lounge is the militant conservative Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad) and closeted homosexual art teacher Tracy (Jack McBrayer). While each of the cast takes turn punching our funny bones (Wilson’s talent for improvisation is on full display), it’s Mr. Leigh Whannell who comes out of left field, delivering a truly bizarre and hysterical performance. He plays Doug, a seemingly socially inept teacher with a bizarre disposition. Before and after the shit hits the fan, Whannell consistently dips in and out of frame and just kills. I’m not sure what his comedy background is but ay caramba does he steal the show in Cooties.
A tainted chicken nugget is what causes a virus to spread amongst Fort Chicken Elementary’s students, turning them into rabid, bloodthirsty terrors. Once the virus begins to spread, Cooties takes off at an utterly frantic pace and plays out much like you’d expect. There are loads of clever moments, like showing how pre-virus all the kids pop Adderall and can’t look away from the phones. Without shoving it our face, the film does have something important to say about schoolteachers and how they’re treated in this country. Rainn Wilson in particular has a piercing line that sums up the selfless attitude teachers must possess to pretty much babysit a room of kids every day.
Cooties is a ridiculously entertaining film that nails both the horror and comedy aspects to an unyielding degree. It’s grisly scares one moment and hysterical the next – and it’s all satisfying.
Lionsgate will be releasing Cooties on September 18.