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Thursday, October 8, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 3: Cooties (2014)

Story by Ian Brennan & Leigh Whannell & Josh C. Waller; Screenplay by Leigh Whannell & Ian Brennan
Directed by Jonathan Millot & Cary Murnion

Elijah Wood:  Clint
Rainn Wilson:  Wade
Alison Pill:  Lucy
Nasim Pedrad:  Rebekkah
Jack McBrayer:  Tracy
Leigh Whannel:  Doug
Jorge Garcia:  Rick

Some time ago there was an internet quiz that asked you how many five-year-olds you could take in a fight. I have the feeling that a conversation between the writers sparked from that quiz led to the creation of this film, possibly after watching 28 Days Later or any of the newer crop of "running zombie" movies. The people who made this one also set themselves up with a very difficult task; horror comedies are a very, very tough mix of genres.

The opening credits give you a look at how chicken nuggets are made (which should be enough to put you off eating them for a good long while), where one REALLY OBVIOUSLY NASTY one on the conveyor belt doesn't get pulled by quality control. Upton Sinclair would be proud. The nugget goes through meat processing, breading, freezing, shipping, deep-frying and visual inspection by the lunch worker at Fort Chicken Elementary School without anyone noticing the giant black pockmarks on the chicken nugget. It gets served to a blonde pigtailed moppet (that we find out is named Shelly about forty minutes into the film), who doesn't notice the grotesque green ooze that pops out of the nugget when she sinks her teeth into it. But we never learn who she is at this point; all that we need to know is that she's Patient Zero for whatever's going to go down later. Some of this footage is processed to look like it's taken with a hidden night-vision camera, I think, but it's unclear why until about the last five minutes of the movie.

After that (and the word COOTIES filling the screen) we skip to Clint, an twentysomething dude living in his mother's attic (in a bedroom full of symbols of his arrested adolescence). He's been working on a book of some kind, and his mom just loved the manuscript--although, when pressed for actual criticism she delivers a laundry list of things that Clint didn't manage particularly well (including the plot, characters, dialogue, setting, and descriptions of time and place). On his drive to teaching summer school, Clint starts dictating a new draft of the book into a micro-cassette recorder, getting stuck on the words immediately after "The boat was evil". (I believe this to be a shout-out to Robert McCammon's The Night Boat, a novel I remember as being pretty good, and about a haunted Nazi submarine attacking the Caribbean). I hope Clint's a better teacher than he is an author.

Clint pulls up to the Fort Chicken Elementary School, where he apparently attended classes back when he was a wee sprat. The crossing guard greets him cheerfully, notes that Clint is not his dope dealer, and then asks if he's got any hallucinogenic mushrooms to sell. Clint parks his scabrous beater and the testosterone-poisoned PE teacher parks his cock-extension pickup right next to him, requiring Clint to exit via the car's hatchback. The kids attending summer grade school look to be a pretty terrible bunch, including one who shouts "Fuck you, Mom!" as he gets dropped off; his mother retorts with a "Fuck you too!" just in case we didn't know where the kid got his charm from.

In the admin office, Clint gets introduced to Acting Principal Simms (played by cowriter Ian Brennan), who drops some necessary exposition (the school is a cell-phone-free zone, which certainly won't come in to play later when the teachers are trying to contact the outside world for help--also, he wants all the kids outside for recess and is willing to lock the schoolhouse doors to keep them on the playground). His one-sided conversation with Clint then demonstrates that he shouldn't be put in charge of a one-car funeral, let alone a school full of children.

In the teachers' lounge we get a quick introduction to the Expendable Meat; I'm as big a fan of double entendres as the next B movie blogger, but the "I love playing with my partner's big fuzzy balls" / "I am talking about tennis, not the gayness, you silly person" dialogue from a male character named Tracy is significantly less than stellar. Next up is Rebekkah, who can't tell Clint which coffee cups in the break room are already claimed, but can tell him that she has a piercingly loud rape alarm clipped to her jacket that automatically radios the police and that Illinois' wimpy gun laws mean she can't carry a pistol for her own protection. So:  No phones, no guns, one really loud it. The gameboard is now set.

After getting completely blanked by Wade the gym coach when trying to make conversation, the next person Clint runs in to is an old girlfriend, Lucy (who seems genuinely surprised and delighted to see him). He was living in Brooklyn but did the Broke Walk of Shame to come back to the suburbs of Chicago to live with his mom (while talking with Lucy, Clint gets observed by science teacher Doug, who is reading a book called How to Have a Normal Conversation and possibly taking mental notes about the way real people talk to each other). He interjects with a quick comment on the day's heat, even though neither Lucy nor Clint were going on about that at all. Awkwardness is increased when Lucy introduces Wade to Clint, who says "Pleased to meet you with meat to please you", and things go a bit downhill from there. Wade's repeated attempts to say "dual rear wheel" when describing the truck look like an outtake that snuck into the main film somehow.

Wade turns out to have read a book once or twice, because he immediately says that Clint's possessed-evil-boat novel is similar to the best-selling Christine, but the first bell rings before any further embarrassment can ensue. Lucy walks Clint to his classroom and the day begins (but not after Clint calls Wade a dick and Lucy tells him she's dating the guy--one last slap in the face from life and then things can get started).

The various teachers are doing Teacher Stuff in a series of cuts to their classes (Doug's using an apron with velcro-attached organs to teach his class about anatomy; Rebekkah is teaching the controversy (by telling all the kids to blame one student whose parents won't let her throw Jesus power at everyone) and Clint gets called a pretty low-hanging-fruit slur when he writes his name on the chalkboard but the L and I are too close together for the kids in the back to see they're two separate letters. He wants to be the cool teacher that kids like, but it ain't happening. Oh, and that horrible kid from the start of the film? He's named Patriot, his parents think his birth on September 11, 2001 was a divine sign that he was destined to kill terrorists, and he's utterly insufferable.

Clint has one of the students read the first chapter of his novel to the class (I'm betting he wants notes from an audience that doesn't know anything about fiction after his mom let him have it with both barrels); while his eyes are closed in rapt contemplation of his own genius Patriot yanks on his preferred target's pigtail, tearing it off her body and triggering what the audience recognizes as a rage zombie attack. She bites him and scratches Clint's arm, then runs down the hall. The school nurse looks at the truly foul-looking bite wound on Patriot's cheek and says there's nothing she can do for him on site--he needs stitches. And judging from the whistling, labored breathing that sounds exactly like the one-pigtailed girl from before, probably an autopsy in about ten minutes or so.

But the day is proceeding, and it's recess time. Patriot's jerk friend (who doesn't get a name as far as I can tell--a common failing in this movie) goes up to Li'l Patient Zero and gets scratched when he confronts her; soon enough he's rampaging in slow motion on the playground attacking the other children. This is witnessed only by that crossing guard, who ate some mushrooms after his dealer decided to show and probably isn't quite sure if what he's really seeing is really what he's seeing. It is. Poor bastard. The virus spreads really fast; seconds after one of the kids is scratched he attacks a teacher (is the film poking fun at a cliche by having a black guy die without getting a single line of dialogue, or just lazy?) and soon enough there's pack of little rage zombies eating his entrails. Wade's out shooting (and missing) baskets on the playground and doesn't notice any of this while it happens.

A second teacher shows up to help the first (a Hispanic woman who screams, but doesn't get any lines either, when the kids with The Cooties take her down). Wade misses that as well, but the crossing guard summons Acting Principal Simms away from his office. He lasts about fifteen seconds once the kids notice him outside and Patriot makes his way into the principal's office to attack the secretary. In the break room, Doug is the first one to notice shit has gone horribly wrong outside and tips everyone else off with a cheery "Oh, look! Carnage!". Everyone inside notices that Wade's out alone surrounded by heavy-breathing zombie kids just as he realizes what's going down (which is a great way to increase the suspense--a surrogate audience realizes Wade's in deep shit just as he does as well and the viewing audience gets to watch the reactions from both). He tries reasoning with the kids, which doesn't take, and then runs for the schoolhouse door. He makes it inside just in time, with a pack of screaming kid zombies mobbing the door.

Meanwhile, Tracy is calling the police and the call gets cut off when Patriot goes crazy in the office, tearing up a bunch of important-looking wiring. But the police do show up (it's probably a priority call when a school asks for help but there's only one guy in the patrol car). Unfortunately that means Officer Appetizer doesn't have any backup when he gets a couple fingers bitten off and then attacked in his cop car. Wade plans to go out and do something but when he opens the lounge door Patriot's right outside and attacks him. Clint winds up on the floor with Patriot trying to kill and eat him, and a series of comic mishaps (including pepper spray right in Clint's eyes, the poor bastard) ends up with Patriot and a nameless victim inside a locked supply cabinet. Everyone gives up on rescuing the poor woman when it turns out nobody has the key.

The core cast escapes to the school library, where Calvin the nerdy black student was avoiding getting beat up on the playground during recess. He's not infected because he missed the triggering incident. He and the teachers make a run for the top floor of the school building and barricade themselves inside the music room and try to figure out what the heck is going on. Calvin knows the word on the playground street, and we finally learn that Patient Zero's name is Shelly when he says she's got cooties. Doug notices the massive eruption of scabs and blisters around Shelly's mouth while she's pressed against a shatterproof window trying to get in to them and starts to put things together about what's going on. While he's being smart, Wade and Clint are in the standard "it's the survivors who screw everything up" argument trying to figure out how to live through the emergency. Wade favors picking up instruments and beating the kids down, then running for their cars and getting out of dodge. Clint thinks getting the basket of cell phones out of the principal's office and calling the CDC is a better plan.

A cutaway to the office shows Patriot smashing all the cell phones after one rings, so it might actually be that Wade has a better idea (not that the characters realize this). Lucy uses the vocabulary of a well-meaning grade school educator to praise Clint for trying while also saying his idea isn't any good and won't help. She also thinks Wade's idea is just going to get everyone killed, and suggests waiting until 3 that afternoon when the kids' parents will come to pick them up. They signal for help, parents call the CDC, everyone lives happily ever after. Clint likes this idea better than his "try not to get killed going for the phones" plan and things are fine until he reveals the nasty scratch on his arm. Wade demands that they throw Clint in quarantine (which is a pretty good idea--the characters in the movie don't know the incubation period for The Virus, and come to think of it, the viewers don't know if it just affects adults more slowly than kids or if all the grownups are immune).

Oh, and we get another bit where the stoned crossing guard is freaking out in his van.

Doug decides to go into the quarantine room with Clint to figure out what's going on. Clint's got the virus but it's treating him like he's got the flu. Doug examined his vomit and other expelled fluids to see what was going on (but without putting gloves on, the genius) and gives Clint a "probably not going to turn into a zombie" bill of health. Everyone settles in to wait and see what's going to happen (though Clint is still locked in the quarantine room). At three o'clock a soccer mom pulls up in her minivan and one of the genuinely ghastly scenes in the movie takes place. I didn't think they'd have the nerve to play the card they did, but they went for it (although the blow gets softened a little bit, it's still "Italian cannibal movie" levels of nastiness).

The teachers and Calvin can't get the soccer mom's attention (she's on the phone), so they wind up standing on the school roof making lots of noise, which the kids down on the ground notice. One uninfected girl joins their group and they all beat feet back inside where the question "Who can kill a child?" gets answered authoritatively. Wade takes a fire extinguisher to Patriot's jerk friend and beats him to death while reaction shots from all the surviving teachers show up instead of a ten-year-old getting his head pounded into chunky salsa. This saved Doug's life from a cootie-monster attack and he proposes a quick dissection to figure out what exactly the virus is doing to the kids (and possibly, since it's a B movie, determining whether or not there's a quick cure--salt, for example, was useful against a kaiju rock garden back in the Fifties).

The uninfected girl turns out to have a wound on her back; either the disease is moving very slowly through her system or she got scratched very recently. She goes into the girls' room to wash her injury with soap and water (which might help, and a slim chance is better than none). At the same time, Doug has the dead kid on the boys' room floor and is pulling the brain out with his bare hands. That's interesting and relevant to the main plot, so it's time to go back to the crossing guard freaking out in his van again.

Back in the school, Wade's griping to Lucy that Clint was hitting on her and reveals that he was planning to propose to her on the first day of summer school, but realized that the brief conversation she had with Clint showed a side of her that he never saw, and wishes he could. He's much too much the testosterone-saturated dickhead to let her "get away" with liking somebody else that she hasn't seen in a decade and a half, and the conversation ends badly. It's also tonally quite at odds with the rest of the film. A hack wannabe writer and screaming zombie kids don't really fit well with sudden emotional truth.

Now that that's out of the way, Doug can explain that the grey matter in an infected kid is mostly dead--they have enough of their marbles left to run, jump, bite, and scream but not much else. He says they're essentially dead but still moving (which means it's a proper zombie movie after all). A quick conference with the girl who got scratched but hasn't changed yet helps him confirm a hypothesis--the virus only goes Full Romero on people who haven't been through puberty. That's why Clint, who was also scratched, hasn't turned into a blistered-faced corpse trying to attack everyone else in the group. Right after this revelation gets dropped the lights go out (Patriot is screwing around in the room with all the big power switches). And it turns out that Calvin is diabetic, so he needs to boost his blood sugars, like, now, or he could drop into a coma.

Then, of course, a mob of zombie kids attack. The sudden arrival of a janitor who turns out to live at the school in a little room in the basement. He doesn't have anything with carbohydrates for Calvin to eat, but he does have a radio that gives an emergency warning for the greater Fort Chicken metro area. The virus is spreading and things are going quite badly indeed out there. It would cost way, way, way too much money to actually show that, though, so we're just gonna watch these teachers get scared in the basement. Clint figures out that there's a vending machine in the teachers' lounge that has delicious carby snacks for Calvin; it's also got Wade's jacket complete with car keys in the pocket. Someone can go to the lounge via the air ducts, get the keys and something for Calvin to eat, return to the basement storage room and everyone can get into Wade's oversized truck and go somewhere less horrifically dangerous.

Of course, the smallest person in the group is Clint (who was described as a Hobbit by Wade back in the first act). Clint protests that he doesn't do brave things, but it looks like it's him or nobody. He sets off into the air vents and the pep talk over the walkie-talkie to boost his spirits goes incredibly awry within seconds. Lucy has a meltdown and tells everyone off, then gets in the air vents herself (if she's going to die anyway, she reasons, it might as well be trying to do something good for Calvin). She doesn't warn Clint that she's in the vents so when she grabs his foot to tell him she's there he flips out a bit. They crawl further and wind up doing the "try not to make noise or breathe" thing when a zombie kid sees them in the floor grate in an otherwise-empty room.

The pair of protagonists gets to the break room without further incident and get the truck keys. The vending machine doesn't want to accept the dollar that Clint has; he's stuck in the break room when a tricycle-riding child monster gets there. Lucy's gone off to retrieve everyone's cell phones (because it is imperative to split up in a horror movie and this is the first real chance they've had to do it). She gets a phone but when Rebekkah's incredibly loud alarm thing goes off in the break room it attracts the notice of Patriot and the girl on the tricycle. They get the candy bar and zip into the air ducts, with Patriot and a few other kid monsters in hot pursuit. The walkie-talkies get some use when Clint warns everyone that the zombie kids are mobile in the air ducts and Wade improvises a barricade that probably will work to keep the larger group of hiding victims for a while, at least.

Back with Clint and Lucy, our hero says that he missed a friend from earlier and happier days and returned to Fort Chicken because he knew she was teaching there; when he was in New York pursuing his dreams of literary glory he was actually a schoolteacher there, not a writer. He was hoping to get back to the novel in his free time, but it turns out that "free time" is a luxury first-grade teachers do not get much of. He doesn't wrap up his True Confession by insulting Lucy, and they share a bitter laugh and then a kiss in the face of near-certain doom. There's a similar "hey we are communicating with each other" moment with the B-squad teachers, but it's played more for laughs. And Clint tells Wade the truth about his writing abilities and says he'll get out of the way if Lucy and he wind up together (via walkie-talkie, and with plenty of profane outbursts from Wade).

Clint goes through students' backpacks and finds a treasure trove of ADD medication. He scatters pills out so the kids will potentially overdose on them and get knocked out, or at least wind up giving the adults a little more of an edge. Wade, back in his section of the building, tells everyone to suit up with whatever they can find to improve their chances against the zombie kids. They quickly improvise a bunch of battle armor and weaponry out of random things in boxes, but when the walkie-talkie signal that it's go time gets sent, Patriot overhears it. Wade tries to psyche everyone up for the beatdown and they sneak through the hallways festooned with various things. The first zombie kid gets walloped by a fastball from Wade's shoulder-mounted pitching machine (that probably sounded funnier in the writers' room than it actually is on the screen). Everyone advances slowly through the dark school halls and goes outside for the big rumble (it's dozens of students on the playground versus six teachers and two currently uninfected kids; the janitor stayed inside to go into Beast Mode while nobody was watching and doesn't wind up in any of the sequences outside).

The fight outside is more of an action sequence than either a horror or comedy one (which doesn't really mesh well with either of the film's major tones so far), and at this point the sun's gone down so everything happening is much less distinct. Wade throws the keys to his cock-extension pickup truck to Clint and prepares to do a one-man reenactment of the Battle of Thermopylae. He gets swarmed pretty much instantly and everyone else gets away, though the truck turns out to be almost out of gas and Patriot's on top of it reaching down through the sunroof to attack Clint (who is driving). Patriot gets written out of the movie in an impressively vicious callback to his repellent personality from before he got his brain reamed out by the virus.

But it's a zombie movie, so everyone goes to the next town over from Fort Chicken and the streets are deserted save the occasional corpse of a grownup. The truck runs out of gas completely and everyone piles out to see what fresh hell they've stumbled into. The time-honored electronics store full of display TVs serves as a quick exposition bomb--the nugget that set things off at Fort Chicken Elementary was one of many tainted food products shipped out to various schools; Indiana, Illinois and Ohio are all listed as locations for the pandemic (and, if you even remember me mentioning the nightvision footage of the chicken factory, it comes up here again as the news stations report that tainted chicken nugget meat is the cause of the outbreak). A mob of infected kids find the survivors and chase them into a building that turns out to be a pizza-party restaurant. Apparently a birthday party went critical there, and the infected kids are all laughing and screaming as they see the adults down in the center of Playland. But Wade and Hitachi the janitor found the crossing guard and his van, drove to Danville to save everyone and smashed their way into the restaurant to accomplish that. Turns out that a Super Soaker full of kerosene is a great distraction, but a lit match in the pool of spilled fuel is even better. They drive off into an uncertain future, their path lit by the radiance of a burning child zombie.

Appropriately enough for a film where educational-grade meat paste brings on the zombie apocalypse, this movie is neither fish nor fowl--it's not horrific enough to succeed on the scary-movie half of the bill or funny enough to work as a full-on comedy (though there are moments of brilliance on both sides, to be fair). I do like that the film had the guts to go for the Seventies-style bummer ending, and special credit needs to be given to Leigh Whannell, the cowriter. His portrayal of the obviously batshit insane Doug is the kind of loopy genius the movie needed more often; there's way too much standard-issue zombie stuff and teacher-comedy stuff in the film and a little more crazypants would have served it well. Also, other than needing a way to get Wade and Mr. Hatachi into the story again at the end, there was no reason for the shroom-eating crossing guard to even be in the film. I remember reading that the ending was reshot and lots of changes were made after festival screenings, but I think they probably just ran out of time and money before the filmmakers could make something truly loopy and wonderful. If "good enough" is good enough for you some night, you could do much worse, but don't expect greatness from this one.

But look at that teaser poster. It looks exactly like the kind of hack writer horror paperback you'd get at a drugstore in 1981 or so, and everyone involved in the movie's production at least knew what they were shooting for (and since People Like Us are the only ones that would see a movie based on that poster, they tried a couple other directions for their ad campaign--probably wisely, but I still love the hell out of the skeleton-hand-with-lollipop picture). I think I can bump their final grade up to a B- for effort, with a little extra credit for making the writer character a hack instead of a genius. However, they get points taken off for not actually killing off any of its main characters (it's hard to raise the stakes when everyone gets out of every situation) and for not being nearly as transgressive as a horror movie about killing children should have been. Anyone that would go see this movie would be expecting a much higher body count, of both the protagonists and the horde of infected kids.

This is the third review for HubrisWeen 2015. Click the banner to see what other four reviews of movies starting with C are available for your bemused interest.


  1. Thank you for lowering my expectations. I'll probably enjoy it now more than I would have.

  2. That's an odd little double post. I'm worried that if I delete one they'll both vanish.