“Circle, circle, dot, dot—now you have a cootie shot.” So goes the old playground rhyme kids would chant to protect each other from the dreaded touch of “icky” members of the opposite sex. If only it were so easy for moviegoers to vaccinate themselves from films that fail to follow through on entertaining premises, like Cooties, a comic-horror hybrid that presents a unique twist on the zombie genre, only to stumble badly as the movie moves beyond the schoolyard.
This first feature from directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion isn’t about a disease passed on by touch, but rather an initially food-borne illness spread by cannibalistic bites and bloody scratches. The culprit? Contaminated chicken nuggets that we see being created during the pre-credit sequence that opens the film: A lone fly lays eggs on one of the freshly plucked carcasses at a poultry farm, and crawling maggots mix with the meat that’s ground, processed, packaged and shipped to a nearby elementary school. In a final close-up, a pigtailed young girl bites into a nugget as a viscous sludge spews forth from within. Ah, school lunch.
Cut to Clint Hadson (Elijah Wood, the film’s producer) as he awakens in the attic room of his mother’s house to a report on his bedside clock radio mentioning a recall on, yes, chicken nuggets. Clint is an aspiring horror author who’s just returned home to Fort Chicken, Illinois, after an unsuccessful stint living and working in New York. Driving to his new job as a substitute teacher, he arrives at Fort Chicken Elementary, which he graduated from in 1988. Exiting his Prius, he overhears a mother who’s dropping off her son. “You’re grounded,” she tells him. “You come straight home.” The defiant boy’s response? “Fuck you, Mom.” The school may be the same, but the students sure have changed.
Clint is greeted by Vice Principal Simms (Ian Brennan, one of the movie’s co-writers, and a writer/producer known for TV’s Glee and the upcoming Scream Queens). With his boss away on vacation, Simms has his own ideas about how to run things, declaring the school a “no cellphone campus”—a policy that extends to the faculty, conveniently negating an obvious way they could call for help if need be.
Clint is thrilled to find out that said faculty includes Lucy (Alison Pill), a former classmate and crush. We quickly meet the rest of the quirky, stereotypical staff: closeted art teacher Tracy (30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer), his nemesis, creationist science teacher Rebekkah (Saturday Night Live’s Nasim Pedrad), socially awkward sex-ed teacher Doug (co-writer Leigh Whannell, a writer/producer known for Saw and Insidious) and gym teacher Wade (The Office’s Rainn Wilson), a former jock gone to seed—and also Lucy’s jealous boyfriend.
Once in his classroom, Clint attempts to connect with a new generation of kids by asking them to call him by his first name, which he writes on the chalkboard. Patriot (Cooper Roth), the boy we’d seen earlier mouthing off to his mother, loudly and intentionally misreads his new teacher’s name as a four-letter word. Turning the focus back on Patriot, Clint asks him how he got his name. “I was born on September 11,” the obnoxious lad boasts. “God sent me on that day. That’s why, on my 18th birthday? I’m joining the Marines—just to kick some towel-head ass!”
Continuing to disrupt class, Patriot teases Shelly (Sunny May Allison), a sickly-looking young girl, for having “cooties.” Pulling on one of her pigtails, he unexpectedly rips it clean off, leaving a gory wound on the scalp of the girl we recognize as the one from the film’s opening moments. Not yet Marine material, Patriot is stunned when the feral child pounces, biting off a chunk of his cheek.
By recess, Patriot and nearly all the rest of the pre-pubescent children have been transformed into bloodthirsty, brain-dead cannibals. The horrified teachers barricade themselves inside, trying to figure out how to save themselves from the “little cootie kids.” It’s a fun premise for a horror comedy, but unfortunately, a fun premise is all it remains.
Milott and Murnion have been in such a hurry to set up the pandemic that we’re only 20 minutes into the picture, and it has nowhere left to go, aside from hitting overly familiar beats—the first victim of the kiddies’ hunger for human flesh is a black man, for example—once Whannell and Brennan’s screenplay begins dipping into predictable conventions.
Lost’s Jorge Garcia also appears, but after he’s introduced as school crossing guard Rick, he spends most of the movie doing absolutely nothing behind the wheel of a parked van, which is a good metaphor for how aimless the film becomes.
There is a decent amount of viscera for the gore hounds in the audience to chew on—along with a few quotable lines for everyone else. But as the early laughs become a distant memory, we all discover that there’s no real end in sight; rather than resolution, we’re presented with the promise of a sequel. Personally, I’d rather eat the chicken nuggets.
Starring Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Ian Brennan, Jorge Garcia, Cooper Roth, Miles Elliot, Armani Jackson, Morgan Lily, Sunny May Allison, Peter Kwong, Kate Flannery, Matt Jones and Rainn Wilson. Written by Leigh Whannell and Ian Brennan, based on a story by Whannell, Brennan and Josh C. Waller. Directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion. At the Brattle Theatre.