Clint (Elijah Wood) is back living with his mother in his hometown of Chicken Fort, after a long stint in New York pursuing his dream as a writer. Actually, he’s still working on that first novel, a horror story about a possessed boat, but he feels a change of surroundings will do his creativity the power of good, though he has to take a job at the local school where he will teach writing to the kids. Despite his mother’s well-meaning critique of his manuscript which didn’t make it sound like a work of quality, Clint is essentially optimistic that this summer he will get his life sorted out, yet when he arrives at the school he doesn’t exactly find a warm welcome – and it’s about to get a whole lot worse.
Starting with an opening credit sequence that will put you off chicken nuggets for life, assuming you ate them in the first place, Cooties was another entry in the zombie cycle the Twenty-First Century had been so enamoured with, only there was a twist. You could argue, and many did, that the zombies weren’t really zombies here since they depicted the infected rather than the undead, so this was lumped in with the likes of 28 Days Later… as that subgenre of movies where disease outbreaks were the main fear and indeed trigger for the mayhem. But there was a bigger difference in this, which tackled the problematic issue of what happened when children were infected; we were aware that in this kind of panic they would be, but we didn’t often see them in the movies.
Call it a taboo, call it something filmmakers would prefer not to get into, but works like the Spanish Would You Kill a Child? from the seventies were very much the exception and not the rule, leaving Cooties following in some hardly trodden footsteps. To make it more acceptable, the script by Leigh Whannell and Ian Brennan (who also appeared as staff members at the school), brightened up what could have been very bleak with a bunch of jokes, certainly in bad taste but geeing the audience up to have fun with a dubious concept. If you were a parent, however, you might not find it half as amusing as they intended to be, but it was more silly and goofy, like a game of tig with gore, than it was offensive.
From an infected chicken nugget is spawned a virus that only affects those who have not gone through puberty, and the hapless Clint is about to suffer the worst day of his life when the school is the centre of the outbreak. Not that it wasn’t bad enough before, with the teachers treating him like a moron and the kids taking advantage of his good nature to behave badly, enabling us to recognise that far from some fantasy shocker scenario playing out, Cooties was expressly leading us to sympathise with the much-harassed breed, the teachers. Everything here pointed us in the direction of understanding what a sheer hell modern tutoring had become, and you had the impression they were only half exaggerating.
This was one of the lower budget horror movies Wood moved into once he had established himself in the Lord of the Rings blockbusters, and suited his wide-eyed innocent persona better than some, though the whole film was well-cast with a selection of talents mostly proven in comedy as the, shall we say, idiosyncratic staff. Well, let’s not say that, as their occupation has plainly sent them straight round the bend, displaying symptoms of impending mental breakdowns that oddly the crisis manages to channel into a survivalist state of mind as they cope against the odds. Clint has an ulterior motive for moving back to the town, and that’s to see fellow teacher Lucy (Alison Pill) who he had a crush on when they were schoolkids themselves, though naturally his luck has it that she is going out with the intolerant P.E. teacher Wade (Rainn Wilson) for love triangle business. But really this was about solving the problem of the maniac kids, and even if the first time one of them is killed isn’t too funny by design, and the film has an open ending, Cooties had energy and a recklessness that proved diverting. Music by Kreng.