If you look back over the history of horror and science fiction cinema, you’ll find no shortage of “killer kid” movies. From classics like The Bad Seed (1956) and Village of the Damned (1960) to more contemporary thrillers like The Good Son (1993) and The Children (2008), the premise has proven to be fertile ground for dark fiction for one good reason, and that reason is this: little kids can be really freaking creepy sometimes. But while most of the entries in this sub-genre are generally pretty stone-faced serious — because the idea of killing children (even monstrous ones) is kind of heavy — the goofy new horror comedy called Cooties says “screw all that.” Here’s a diverting multi-genre concoction in which little kids are not only the bloodthirsty antagonists, but also end up getting gruesomely demolished by a gang of highly immature grown-ups. Politically correct? No. Fast-paced and funny b-movie fun? Certainly.
Clint (Elijah Wood) is a failed novelist turned substitute teacher, and it’s during his first day of work that all hell breaks loose: a little girl gets infected by a toxic chicken nugget, turns all rabid and feral, attacks other kids, and generates a small army of ravenous, cannibalistic schoolkids who want nothing more than to chew their way through the teaching staff — and that’s where Cooties really works. The film is never actually scary, but it is frequently gory; co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cory Murnion seem to realize that their best approach here is “R-rated sitcom,” and for the most part they pull it off.
In addition to Wood’s dry wit, we also get (co-writer) Leigh Whannell as an amusingly off-kilter science teacher; Alison Pill as a kindhearted educator who is not prepared for all the kid-related carnage; Rainn Wilson as a gruff, vulgar gym teacher; Jack McBrayer as a whiny wimp; Nasim Pedrad as one angry Republican; Ian Brennan (another co-writer) as a dorky new-age vice-principal; and Jorge Garcia as a crossing guard with a taste for hallucinogenic mushrooms. It’s not just that these are funny actors; it’s that each of their characters is a specific kind of funny, and they often bounce off each other in clever ways.
Basically, Cooties would probably work as a broad farce about goofy teachers even without the “rabid cannibal children” angle — but then we’d be missing out on a lot of twisted fun. The chatterbox screenplay is loaded with funny quips, insults, and profane exchanges between the teachers as they find themselves running down hallways, hiding in basements, and fending off an army of flesh-eating children. If Cooties leans 60/40 in the comedy department, it still manages to pack an admirable amount of politically incorrect cannibal kid mayhem into the equation, and the result is a colorful, kinetic genre mash-up that rarely slows down long enough to wear out its welcome.
If Cooties suffers from one malady, it probably lies somewhere in the film’s somewhat random third act, but to explain why would probably venture into “spoilers” territory — and it’s certainly nothing bad enough to sour a good time. A few slow spots early on are quickly salvaged by a weird punchline or an unexpected explosion of gory unpleasantness — and it certainly doesn’t hurt matters that the ensemble cast seems to be having a good deal of fun with the broad, bloody material. Even at the film’s slowest spots (like when the teachers end up trapped in a boiler room) there’s a steady flow of antagonistic banter that manages to keep things funny.
And that’s why it works: Cooties is much more a comedy than it is a horror movie — although it does pack a nice parcel of splatter FX — and it’s the sort of movie you’d probably want to watch with at least three friends and a mind-altering substance of some variety. Cooties might not be the first movie about a horde of homicidal children who devour grown-ups in highly explicit fashion, but it may actually be the funniest.
3.5 gym teacher burritos out of 5