This past weekend, I went to check out the latest horror comedy to hit theaters: Cooties, starring Elijah Wood and Rainn Wilson.
The last few horror-comedies I saw in theaters were big winners with me: Bloodsucking Bastards and Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead, specifically. However, Cooties was a much different story. I’m not quite sure yet if I just didn’t like it, or if I honestly hated it. I’ve decided to percolate on that a bit, but in the meantime, here are some thoughts.
Cooties takes place in a small town elementary school near a massive chicken factory, and follows the outbreak of a chicken-born virus from the factory that turns children into zombie-like cannibals. The elementary school serves as ground zero for the outbreak, leaving a handful of surviving teachers trapped within its confines.
First off, these issues I have aren’t rooted in that premise. Children infected with a zombie-esque virus is great: it brings up some ethical questions about fighting children, allows for some great creepy child-acting, and you get to see some shitty little kids turn into fleshy goo as a bonus. I’m all good on that front; I couldn’t be happier.
Where this movie absolutely fails is in the writing, in just about every way that writing could realistically fail. To start with, the cast includes a number of lazy stereotypes that couldn’t be less believable as human beings. Let’s start with Hitachi, a Japanese janitor who randomly appears halfway through the movie. He lives in the basement of the school (janitors do that, yeah?), and serves three purposes for the film: 1) to offer a character seaweed to eat, which they decline 2) to offer a fake ancient parable of wisdom before a fight, which is cut off because it is too long (hilarious, right?), and 3) to kill a bunch of child-zombies with well-choreographed martial arts (of course). Is it worth pointing out how lazy the writing for this character is? Honestly, that isn’t so much a character as it is an outline for a racist cartoon.
Other characters in the story include a woman teacher whose only lines refer to guns, conservative politics, or her emergency rape button, and a science teacher with brain damage who doesn’t understand social cues, and has extensive surgical and medical knowledge beyond his education. Although, to their credit, they at least have a few character traits. The surviving children characters who tag along with the gang of teachers are even more vague outlines than that: one of them is “nerd with diabetes,” and the other is “already had her first period.” Both of these descriptions have direct plot relevance, making them more devices than characters when all is said and done. Outside of their respective plot moments, the two children are seldom seen or heard, and barely even have reactions to the violence around them. This might have been a statement about desensitization, but I think the directors just forgot to tell them to do anything.
On to a structural screenplay problem: Cooties is one of those apocalyptic movies that just sort of…ends. I absolutely loathe this practice, going all the way back to The Birds. It always seems like a cop-out to me, because there is rarely a realistic way to “resolve” an Armageddon scenario in a third act. The Birds at least more of less completes a story, though: Cooties honestly feels like it is missing an act. There is no solid conclusion to the story, no statement of where the characters are going, and no tangible goal that has been achieved. There is a brief mention of the magical brain-damaged scientist making a vaccine, but it is never stated how he would be able to do that, or what would be needed to make that happen. The movie just sort of leaves the audience hanging without any resolution.
Instead of having a finale that satisfies the audience and in some way resolves the plot, here’s how Cooties breaks down. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, the teachers manage to escape from the elementary school, and make it out of the town of “Fort Chicken”. The last third of the film sees them trapped in a neighboring town after running out of gas, which they eventually manage to escape over the rolling of the credits.
In short, the story moves from a primary siege scenario into a much shorter secondary siege scenario, and then it just ends. Movies that hinge on this kind of plot need to stay in that initial siege until the conclusion/resolution of the story, or else the tension will completely dissipate. Tension is a thing that has to be carefully built, and it can’t effectively be rushed. Just like with a building, knocking it down is much easier than putting it back up. The fact that this movie ruins the initial siege (and the tension inherent to it) and then tries to set up another one exhibits a massive misunderstanding of how tension fundamentally works. The thing that bothers me most about this is that Leigh Whannell, the co-writer of Cooties, is no rookie. The guy wrote Saw, which is a fantastically tense and intriguing flick, so he knows how this is supposed to work.
It is easy to say that a horror-comedy doesn’t have to follow the same rules as horror, but that just isn’t true. Shaun of the Dead, for example, deals with a very realistic siege scenario, and builds significant tension with it. Horror-comedies need to be both horrors and comedies in order to work, and when that balance tips too far, the movie falls apart. Cooties suffers from this in a big way: it is a comedy with gore effects more than it is a horror-comedy. The film so absolutely fails in building tension and dread that it defies its own purported label (in a bad way).
Let’s change gears and dig into some of the logic in this movie for a minute. It is explicitly stated at one point (after an improvised autopsy by the magical scientist) that the infected children have very limited brain functions due to the virus turning their grey matter black (what?). However, the infected are shown to still have plenty of higher brain functions throughout the film, specifically when it serves the plot. For instance, one of them consciously cuts off the building’s electricity and destroys all of the cell phones on the property. Another one is shown riding a bicycle, while yet another is shown putting makeup on a corpse. All of these activities (any many more I haven’t mentioned that are shown) require quite a lot of active brainpower, in contradiction to what is stated at the autopsy. On the flip side, at other moments in the story, the children are effectively brain dead, mindlessly eating pills thrown at them or staring blankly into a floor grate, failing to see the obviously visible people underneath it.
The perplexing logic isn’t limited to the virus, either. It is revealed at one point that Elijah Wood’s character quit his job as a teacher in New York City to move back to his home of Fort Chicken (a place that he hates) to live with his mom and be a substitute teacher, specifically because he “missed” someone he hadn’t spoken to in roughly 15 years. The story tries to skirt around how obviously creepy this is, but it never really starts making sense. There is never any other reason given for him moving back to Fort Chicken, other than to pretend that he is working on his novel (which he was already doing in New York). He mentions being depressed, but that background is never delved into or brought back up.
I wish this all was the extent of the issues I have with this movie, but there is plenty more I could get into. For instance, there is a half-assed sequence where the movie explicitly chickens out of a baby death, almost certainly the result of bowing to external pressures. There is also the fact that no actual characters die throughout the movie, in spite of how little that makes sense. There are also more lazy moments of comedy than I care to count, including a Lord of the Rings reference leveled at Elijah Wood, a litany of bad hallucination jokes barely fit for an Evil Bong movie, and Rainn Wilson’s character beating the dead horse of his cookie-cutter gym teacher trope until it is little more than a horse-skin flesh sack.
All of that said, there are some things I liked about this movie. The effects generally look good, the child actors could have been far worse, and there are some genuine moments of humor scattered throughout. Personally, I laughed out loud when Elijah Wood revealed that the name of his in-progress novel about a possessed boat was titled “Keel Them All.” There is also an easily-loathable antagonist in the story: Patriot, a kid born on 9/11 who believes he was sent by God to join the marines and kill a bunch of “towelheads.” You just can’t help but hate this entitled little shit, who spends his time brazenly bullying classmates and threatening teachers (before he ever becomes inclined to eat them).
Overall, Cooties is disappointing above all else. I was initially excited because of the casting and the retro-style poster, and hoped for an interestingly-constructed throwback horror comedy. The movie is weighed down by lazy jokes, aggravating stereotyping, and a bad structure, and winds up being funny in spite of itself only some of the time. Despite how much I dislike this movie, I wouldn’t tell horror and horror-comedy fans to specifically avoid it. I think it actually serves as an interesting counterexample to more effective horror-comedies like Shaun of the Dead, and it sounds like it does have some fans out there. If you just want a gore movie, this will provide that for you, but I try to have higher standards and expectations from the genre. Anybody can throw a bucket of blood at you, only some can make you feel fear at the same time, and even fewer still can make you laugh in the middle of it all.