The opening 45 minutes of Cooties is downright hilarious. The blend of 28 Days Later style horror, chaotic humour and Children of the Corn makes a worryingly natural fit, complete with OTT gore and Rainn Wilson rugby tackling 10 year olds. It’s just a shame that the film can’t keep this relentless comic pace up for the rest of its runtime, as Cooties ends up limping across the finish line in a rather disappointing fashion, becoming an unfortunate victim of its setup’s unambitious constraints.
Following on from a gross-out opening title sequence that will leave anyone who purchased a bag of popcorn or any other nourishment with some very uncomfortable second thoughts, we are introduced to Clint (Elijah Wood), a failed writer whose utter lack of success (he’s now in the process of writing a book about a possessed boat) has driven him back to his home town to teach Summer school to a bunch of 4th graders. Joining him is the inevitably kooky mix of supporting characters, including Alison Pill’s old flame, Rainn Wilson’s monster trucking former football star, Leigh Whannell’s inept sociopath and so on. When an infection begins spreading around the school that turns the kids into the sprinting dead, Clint and co. are tasked with trying to find a way out.
Chaos reigns gloriously until around Cooties‘ midway point, where the writers swiftly run out of ideas. There can only be so many scenes of Elijah Wood running down squeaky corridors before it all starts to feel like a bland affair. Unfortunately, rather than trying to broaden the scope of the comedy, the film instead looks for variation in underdeveloped emotional exploration and misplaced ruminations on the merits of teaching. Once the jokes stop flying and the film settles into its newfound plodding pace, the second half of Cooties proves to be a frequently laughless endurance test. It’s far from awful, but the movie’s bonkers opening throes just serve to starkly contrast its boring closing notes.
Cooties also suffers from a flaw that has plagued numerous entries in the horror-comedy canon – it just isn’t scary. When the comedy flows thick and fast, it’s not really that much of an issue, but the film’s increasing attempts at genuine chills universally fall flat during the comedic lulls. Since the advent Shaun of the Dead, the zom-com has been overworked to breaking point, and fare like Cooties and the disappointingly un-zany Life After Beth feel like its death throes. In short, it’s a sub-genre that’s quickly running out of ideas.
Despite the uneven script, the cast all put in an admirable shift, with Wilson and Wood awkwardly, but often amusingly sparring throughout. Whannell, surprisingly, turns out to be the comedic highlight (this is a guy who up to this point was most well-known for his appearances in Saw and Insidious). His awkward interactions and permanently blank expression, in conjunction with some breathtakingly tasteless lines, make it unfortunate the his character is gradually pushed to the periphery as the film’s second half wears on.
Despite its encouraging opening, Cooties ends up feeling like a missed opportunity – a joyously un-PC take on the horror comedy that tragically runs out of steam around the halfway mark. All the gore and gag-inducing jokes about brain matter are funny the first few times they’re rolled out, but by the end they feel as tired and overstretched as the sub-genre they stem from.
As it wears on, the blistering craziness of Cooties' opening peels away to reveal a horror comedy that's unfortunately short on ideas.