2015, R, 88 min. Directed by Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion. Starring Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Ian Brennan, Armani Jackson.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 18, 2015

Imagine David Cronenberg’s Rabid relocated from a drab Montreal metropolitan locale to an elementary school in small town USA, add a bucket or two of Romero-esque siege mayhem, then cram in some broad splatstick comedy and a frenzied, ADHD pace, and the result is this hit-or-miss kiddie zombie movie from debuting directors Milott and Murnion. Writers Whannell and Brennan, who also have the two funniest roles in the film, don’t stray too far from the film’s obvious genre influences (Cronenberg’s The Brood also resonates here). That’s a bit of a letdown because apart from eviscerating the long-held Hollywood taboo about not offing tykes onscreen, Cooties feels like it could have been a far more subversive – and by extension, hilarious – film, had it reined in some of its more lackluster gags.

Wood is wannabe novelist Clint, who returns to his hometown as a substitute teacher and gets way more than he bargained for. That includes not just those crazy kids, but also the rekindling of a high school romance with fellow teacher Lucy (Pill, excellent), plenty of jockish lip from Wilson’s gym teacher Wade (also great), and a school faculty that comes off as confused and manic as the little monsters themselves. The jokes fly fast and furious but rarely stick, unlike the gore coating everyone by film’s end.

Call me jaded, but the sight of a horde of ravening 9-year-olds turning the tables on their teachers and devouring them after ingesting some extremely past their sell-by date chicken nuggets puts me in mind of weirder, arguably more accidentally transgressive horrorshows such as the 1972 hippie freakout Blood Freak (the yuks in that uniquely bizarre film were, of course, mostly unintended). Wood’s turnabout role as the school newcomer also references Robert Rodriguez’s Austin-lensed The Faculty. But Cooties feels likes it’s trying too hard most of the time. The combination of outrageous humor and ghastly horror is a notoriously difficult mix to pull off, but there are a few brilliant laugh ’n’ recoil gags – a sequence involving ADD-calmative Ritalin comes immediately to mind – scattered throughout this movie’s otherwise too-antic framework. Little kids are already horrific enough in reality, and Cooties doesn’t add that much more to the killer-kid horror subgenre. It’s fun, but it’s no Class of Nuke ’Em High.

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Cooties, Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion, Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Ian Brennan, Armani Jackson

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