There is nothing more frustrating than a movie that comes incredibly close to being truly great. Cooties is a good movie, a fun movie and a very funny movie, but too many flaws keep it from reaching a level of actual greatness - a level it can see from where it stands.
Elijah Wood is Clint, a (bad) aspiring horror novelist whose life has brought him back to his home town and substitute teaching at the grade school he attended in the 80s. As he tries to be the cool teacher and get along with the rest of the eccentric staff a strange infection spreads through the children, changing them into running, screeching, flesh-eating zombies. Clint and his fellow teachers are trapped in the school and must fight their way through hordes of ankle-biters (literally) to escape to freedom.
What works: Cooties is very funny - it’s more of a comedy/horror than a horror/comedy. The cast is great, and Rainn Wilson really surprises as the aggressive PE teacher. Wood is wonderful as a hilariously flustered leading man, and Alison Pill is very funny as his grade school crush who is now teaching at the school, using her impossibly sunny disposition almost as a weapon. But the MVP is Leigh Wannell, who co-wrote the script, and who plays the absolutely weird Doug, who is introduced reading a book called How to Have a Normal Conversation. He starts a joke with “What has two thumbs and killed a prostitute?” He’s amazing, and Whannell is actually creepy in the role.
The comedy works, and the gore is great. Most of it is limited to the third act, but there’s some wonderful kiddie carnage, and since one of the reasons to make a movie like this is to have kids getting their skulls crushed with hockey sticks, Cooties pays off its promise. I would have liked to see the carnage spread throughout the film (Cooties has a bizarrely low body count), but what we get is a lot of fun.
There’s a real problem with the script, though. Jorge Garcia is in the film, but he almost never interacts with the other characters, spending the running time tripping in a van. It’s weird and pointless and he plays absolutely no role in the film; how this wasn’t the first thing cut in the editing room is beyond me. There are uninfected kids introduced who also play no real role in the story in any way. There's a plot point introduced that adults don't become zombies when bitten and scratched, they only get sick, but it doesn't really pay off in any way. Sometimes the sheer number of characters and concepts introduced makes the film feel like a pilot, like we’ll come to understand what the point of Armani Jackson’s precocious nerdy kid is in episode four.
The film hits a major second act lull where it tries to get a little more serious; Shaun of the Dead is the tonal touchstone here, but the script by Whannell and Ian Brennan doesn’t have the Pegg/Wright magic. The characters in Cooties tend to the cartoonish, which is fine in the comedy context, but makes it hard to take them that seriously at times. Wilson transcends all of this, creating an actually nuanced character who is buffoonish but also noble - it’s honestly an impressive feat.
With another pass on the script Cooties could have been absolutely great, a real all-timer. The concept, the cast and most of the jokes get the film very far, and first time feature directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion have a terrific eye and a sense for action. But the problems keep stacking up until the film bends under their weight. Cooties is fun, but it comes so close to being more than just fun that I found myself very disappointed.