Terror Tuesday: “Cooties” (2014)

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Let the right one in. Image source: youtube.com

We’ve come a long way since cute-as-a-button Kim Richards – in her yellow Sunday dress and Pippi Longstocking pigtails – paid for an innocent question about an ice-cream flavor with a gunshot to the chest in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. In 1976, the cinematic murder of children was a taboo that equated itself, ironically, with pornography (Carpenter’s film was threatened with an X rating for that scene). As we’ve progressed away from that otherwise artistically loose and liberal decade, the ratings board, too, has lightened up in their assessment of preteen mortality onscreen.

Cooties is a refreshing kick to a genre that’s seen its fill of slashers and torture porn. It’s an unconventional, frequently absurd siege film with high energy and a satisfying payoff. The tongue-in-cheek title teases something aimed at a younger crowd (not unlike The Monster Squad), but one of the biggest surprises is how it accelerates through violence and conflict with take-no-prisoners aplomb.

This tale of killer kids, unrequited love, romantic rivalries, youthful cruelty, and the sarcastic humor that accompanies the notion of “influencing future generations” is acerbic without succumbing to the hipster cynicism that downgrades a lot of latter-day horrors. Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion take pages from Carpenter, George Romero’s …of the Dead series, and the quirky, semi-comedic tone and characterization of Lucky McKee’s May.

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From left to right: Doug (Leigh Whannell); Clint (Elijah Wood); and Lucy (Alison Pill). Image source: aceshowbiz.com

Heck, part of what makes Cooties so engaging is its defiance of the melodramatic Hollywood cliche that all teachers are unsung life-changers molding the youth of America – the faculty of this elementary-school battleground convey, with great conviction, that the occupation may be their destiny because they just don’t excel at anything else. The most memorable characters are Clint (Elijah Wood, in a wonderfully straight performance), an aspiring novelist making ends meet as a substitute; Lucy (Alison Pill – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), the perpetually perky fourth-grade teacher he pines for; Wade (Rainn Wilson – Super), the coach, Lucy’s beau, and a beer-gutted alpha male with a handlebar mustache; and Doug (Saw scribe Leigh Whannell), whose bad childhood run-in with a spike to the head has rendered him the most discombobulated – but maybe also the most brilliant – of the bunch.

The film begins with a queasy montage depicting how processed food makes its way from the chicken coop to the school lunch tray, concluding with a great gross-out close-up. Juxtaposed against this sequence are the opening credits, which are superimposed as childish scrawl on handwriting paper (kids, ask your parents), and a score that resembles a demented nursery rhyme. All of this sets the mood for what’s to come, and therein lies the Cooties litmus test: if you’re not wearing a stupid grin by the conclusion of this sequence, you should probably turn it off.

Oh, and the film takes place in a fictional town called “Fort Chicken,” so there’s also that.

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Feeding time in Cooties. Image source: nevermore-horror.com

Unlike many hard-R horrors that utilize a desaturated color palette as a substitute for atmosphere, Milott and Murnion complement the premise, mood, and humor with an almost ironic level of vibrant color. They also allow the characters to interact in convincing ways – because the cast takes the script so seriously, a goofy sense of humor percolates throughout. The script, by Whannell and Ian Bannen, is wonderfully innovative, finding new ways to present tired tropes: from cutting off lines of communication (including isolating characters from their cell phones); a unique setting for the “cooties” outbreak; the integration of Ritalin as an accepted part of the daily childhood routine; and an altruistic recon mission (helping a non-infected kid having a diabetic episode).

Furthermore, Milott and Murnion’s visual execution exhibits a sense of bait-and-switch innocence that borders on the perverse. Kids are scratched, bitten, and subsequently finish off recess with severed-head tetherball and intestine jump-rope. Instead of merely aping the deceptively simple formula Romero and Carpenter helped popularize, the creative team finds exciting new ways to refresh tired (sub-)genre conventions.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is the establishment of a young bully, born on 9/11, who becomes the embodiment of the grownups’ xenophobia. Once infected, Patriot (Cooper Roth) continually thwarts the teachers’ efforts to escape, and randomly pops out of nowhere to be a cannibalistic roadblock. The irony of this character springs from the antithesis of the notion of the American patriot, as he transforms from a mere obnoxious brat into a Bush-Administration vision of a terrorist who refuses to say “die.” On a cheekier note, Patriot also serves as a satirical jab at the current generation’s sense of entitlement in running roughshod over their elders (who, granted, allowed it to happen in the first place).

Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 8 out of 10