Stanley Film Festival Review: I Caught The COOTIES

Elijah Wood headlines a horror comedy that will turn the most ardent anti-vaxxer.

Last night, Elijah Wood's film production company SpectreVision brought a brand new cut of the 2014 Sundance film Cooties to Stanley Film Festival, and it made for an ideal kick-off to this fun, creepy, irreverent festival. 

Wood plays Clint, an untalented horror novelist who's returned home to his small town of Fort Chicken to live with his mother and finish (read: start) his novel about a killer boat. To make a little extra money, he takes a job subbing at Fort Chicken Elementary, where he runs into his high school crush Lucy (Alison Pill). On Clint's first day, he, Lucy, Rainn Wilson's macho PE coach Wade, Nasim Pedrad's uptight teacher Rebekkah, Jack McBrayer's typical Jack McBrayer character Tracy and co-writer Leigh Whannell's socially inept Doug are forced to deal with a zombie-like outbreak spreading with a quickness through the prepubescent population of Fort Chicken Elementary, thanks to the consumption of one very sinister-looking chicken nugget. 

With every horror comedy, the line falls too far on one side of the spectrum, usually favoring the comedy over horror. Cooties is no different - I laughed ten times more often than I gasped - and the stakes never feel as high as they should with a pandemic of these proportions attacking innocent children. But the film has a breathless, relentless energy that serves it well, with not a moment of inertia among its 90-something minutes. It's very, very funny, with a cheerfully gonzo tone. Cooties is blithely bonkers in a way that feels new and unexpected. It's very visually striking; directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion give Cooties a bright, appealing aesthetic intriguingly at odds with the gore unfolding onscreen. 

Cooties could go further with that gore - there are at least two completely magnificent kills that had me wishing for a dozen more as brutal. And part of the reason that the stakes feel rather mild is that these kills aren't involving any central characters that matter to us. Dozens of nameless rugrats are demolished in the background, but the most worrisome threat to one of our main characters involves a diabetic attack (Armani Jackson's Calvin). 

There are two points Cooties makes with clarity: kids are gross, and teachers are important. Anyone who's been pawed by a group of sticky-handed fifth graders will feel a very specific sympathy for the teachers surrounded by this most epic of cootie outbreaks. These aren't just almost-zombies; they're tiny disease monsters tearing up the playground. Children, adorable as they may be, are nothing but pint-sized, walking petri dishes, and Cooties makes this truth feel like a very real and very present danger. 

And most films that tell of the ages-long battle between teachers and students take the side of the students. Teachers get a bad rap in film - they're the oppressive force drowning out free spirits, hey, teacher, leave those kids alone! - but in Cooties, they're the much-sung heroes. Clint's the unlikely leader of this ragtag group of educators, but each adult proves to have a surprising amount of humanity under the comedy-driven stereotypes of their characters. In fact, the most refreshing part of Cooties is how character driven it really is; Wood is as charming as ever, Pill is a sunny delight, Wilson is our strongest source of pathos and Whannell steals the show as a complete weirdo who also happens to be a genius in precisely this subject matter. The only character who feels extraneous is Jorge Garcia's shrooming cross guard, a not-quite-plotline that could be neatly lifted out of the film with very little trouble. 

From what I understand, the cut we saw last night ends in a very different way from the Sundance cut, and the ending still doesn't feel quite right - once the characters leave the contained area of the schoolground, Cooties loses a bit of its virility. Fortunately, Cooties is a film with virility to spare.