Review: Cooties (2014)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #686


Number of Views: One
Release Date: January 18, 2014 (Sundance Film Festival), September 18, 2015 (United States)
Sub-Genre: Horror/Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 88 minutes
Directors: Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion
Producers: Tove Christensen, Georgy Malkov, Daniel Noah, Steven Schneider, Josh C. Waller, Elijah Wood, Seth William Meier
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell, Ian Brennan
Special Effects: Justin Raleigh
Visual Effects: Joseph DiValerio
Cinematography: Lyle Vincent
Score: Kreng
Editing: Brett W. Bachman
Studios: SpectreVision, Glacier Films
Distributor: Lionsgate Premiere
Stars: Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Jack McBrayer, Jorge Garcia, Nasim Pedrad, Leigh Whannell, Sunny May Allison, Peter Kwong, Miles Elliot, Jake Brennan, Jared Breeze, Aiden Lovekamp, Nikita Ager, Armani Jackson, Cooper Roth, Ian Brennan, Tammy Baird, Matt Jones


Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Aimee Allen “Cooties”
[2] KrengCooties”
[3] KrengEnd Credits”


I never really understood the fixation with labeling small children as cherubs. Little monster seems more apt, tiny terror hits the nail bang on the head, while ankle-biter pretty much sums them up in a nutshell. You see, for all their wide-eyed wonderment and cute cheek dimples, kids happen to be the most overworked plague carriers on our planet and there’s nothing sweet-natured about that. They collect, carry and transfer germs at a much faster rate than adults and don’t think twice about picking up whatever foreign objects they happen across while making a general nuisance of themselves. Take a freshly laid pile of mutt excrement for example, a toddler may find this comparable to silly putty and, considering their parents often haven’t explained death to them yet, a fast decomposing shrew carcass is simply begging to be nursed back to full health in their makeshift animal hospitals. Sharing drinking beakers and silverware fazes them not, sucking on the toes of their own footwear appeals massively, and the three-second rule for felled lollipops is a myth they have absolutely no understanding of.


Once a weekday, these runny-nosed cretins are bundled together in the equivalent of an oversized petri dish and allowed to run amok. One game of kiss chase and the bacteria is laughing, hopscotching from one host to the next with as many cares in the world as its master of ceremonies. Once those common colds start to circulate, you can bet your antiseptic wipes that it was children that hooked that shit up in the first place. This is all well and good but spare a thought for those tasked with gatekeeping these pint-sized plague dogs. Have you ever heard an elementary school teacher griping over not being paid enough for what they do? They may have a point as the frontline can be an ugly place to be, never more so than when the dreaded lurgy has shown its repugnant face. The word “cooties” may not be respected by those of literary pomp but it is a very real problem, particularly if your young ‘un goes to school in Fort Chicken, Illinois.


Of course, one of such tender years couldn’t hope to orchestrate such frenzy solo and it is here that cooped up chicken lends a talon or three. Before you rush outside to slaughter those livestock, it would be wrong to go clucking your chagrin at chickens, as it’s the likes of Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald that give the very worst kind of rogue bacteria a home. I’ve never once met a seven-year-old not willing to partake in a McNugget or six for the cause of poor diet and that appears to be what is driving the pipsqueaks here to such extremities. Cooties is one thing and just about containable, whereas the strain they’ve contracted has pandemic patty written all over it in open sores and pus-oozing blisters. The three o’clock bell couldn’t come soon enough for the faculty of Fort Chicken Elementary and, if I were them, I’d have my head down marking some term papers as the kids most definitely aren’t alright.


Our first clue? I’m fairly assured that pig-tails aren’t designed to pluck from the root when tugged too harshly and biting certainly isn’t permitted in the classroom. Those baby teeth may seem like little more than the Tooth Fairy’s booze money, but they make up for what they lack in bite radius with the kind of peck frequency that would have most piranha darting off downstream for their nibbles. Downright cannibalistic is more like it and brain-dead zombies isn’t a million shuffles from accurate either. Needless to say, if you’re looking for some nice safe PC entertainment, then good luck with that as this school’s out forever. First time directing duo Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion are disinterested in curriculum and Cooties isn’t looking to earn that elusive apple from teacher. This is the kind of mirthfully maniacal midnight movie that would have been more than at home slap bang in the middle of the eighties and a gloriously game ensemble cast raise it effortlessly above text-book.


If struggling writer cum substitute teacher Clint Hadson (Elijah Wood) is looking for inspiration for his new horror novel, then he’s come to the right place and that’s without even stepping out of the staff room. We have hands-on sex-ed guru (Leigh Whannell), terrified of his own reflection art teacher Tracy (Jack McBrayer), and coiled up conservative Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad) for starters and boorish P.E. Miyagi, Wade Johnson (Rainn Wilson) is the closest this rowdy rabble come to a voice of reason as long as you don’t request he tell you about his rear-wheel drive. However, there is one breath of fresh meadow air in the form of Clint’s one time high school sweetheart, Lucy McCormick (Alison Pill), and it doesn’t take an online compatibility test to suss out that she still has eyes for him.


Meanwhile, down at the playground, the ankle-biters are jumping rope with a length of intestine and finding new and inventive ways to improve the acoustics on their bicycle spokes. Our eye on the ground is crossing guard Rick (Jorge Garcia), although the magic mushrooms have just kicked in and anything else but gazing blurry-eyed in sheer disbelief from the cozy confines of his camper van just isn’t in his job description. Time is running out for the cornered chalkies and, with the blast radius of this unfortunate outbreak fast becoming clear, the sole consolation is that there won’t be any PTA meetings scheduled for the foreseeable. Of course, there’s still the small matter of navigating this cootie-strewn hell hole without a ton of protective batter but, in Wade they have themselves some mad dodgeball skills and a tiny brain, so minimal peer pressure is necessary.


I’ve been quietly impressed with the kind of projects that Wood has chosen in his bid to step away from Middle Earth and, as a down and proud horror aficionado, it pleases me immensely to see a recognized A-lister represent for all us ghouls. In Franck Khalfoun’s mercurial Maniac reboot, he balanced social awkwardness with spiraling nutbag more than effectively and, while it’s not necessitated for him to dig anywhere near as deep here, he brings his very best geek boy and delivers each line with side relish. Pairing him with Wilson is ingenious but the entire cast play their part and, where you’d expect to be able to number each body bag in a film of Cooties’ strain, it’s only too happy to buck the trend and keep the audience on their toes.


The screenplay from Saw writer Whannell and Glee co-creator Ian Brennan seldom strays far from tongue-in-cheek and, while not all of the humor sticks, the synergy between our survivors keeps it well away from earning detention. Many have complained that it sells itself short and admittedly more could have been done with such a prime premise but it seems unfair to penalize Cooties for not trying harder as the reason it never quite attains greatness is that it’s not really aiming for such. Procured by Lionsgate at the Sundance Film Festival of all places, all signs pointed to a huge commercial hit, but that regrettably never played out quite to plan and it disappeared from limited screens faster than a preschooler around bath time. It’s a crying shame as it’s pacy, playful and pleasurable, if not altogether memorable.


I make no secret of the fact that I believe children are best neither seen or heard with regards to my beloved horror, but I’ll never turn my nose up to throwing these lambs to the slaughter for harmless shits and/or giggles. Cooties displays enough meanness of spirit to extract a fair amount of blackened glee from its simple set-up and, in the precise same moment, may make you think twice about picking the little whippersnappers up from school come last bell. Search for those warning signs Grueheads; runny noses may be par for the course but weeping hives, bubbling blisters and angry boils are an extreme no-no unless you fancy being laid up permanently. It’s way too late for contraception; just say no to McNuggets and send those cherubs to bed without supper like the parenting handbook states. Class dismissed.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: If I ever meet Justin Raleigh, I’ll shake him firmly by the hand (before and after wringing out some antibacterial hand wipes of course) as his practical creations are a thing of sublime and grotesque beauty. There’s a hefty dollop of human surplus on our lunch trays and sufficient chow down on exhibit to bare a fair few bones. Cooties may play primarily for laughs, but on occasion and with Kreng’s delicious score thumping away in the background, it hints at something far darker. 

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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