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Cooties (Sundance Review)

Jan. 21, 2014by: Eric Walkuski
PLOT: A wanna-be horror novelist turned substitute teacher (Elijah Wood) has to contend with a school full of rabid children when one of them is infected by a virus from a tainted chicken nugget.

REVIEW: The only downside about attending a film festival like Sundance- other than the lack of sleep- is that you end up watching so many movies, when a bad one comes along it seems worse than it might otherwise. If I had seen COOTIES outside of the film festival circuit, I probably would have just found it to be mediocre. At Sundance, where it's pitted against so many excellent films, COOTIES can't help but feel trite.

COOTIES attempts to be a horror-comedy, but that's a problem as it's not the least bit scary and- even worse- isn't funny either. The premise is clever- even if it's derivative of WHO COULD KILL A CHILD and CHILDREN OF THE CORN- making these adorable, pint-sized kiddies decrepit zombies. Early on, COOTIES even shows a little promise, with a great opening montage showing a tainted chicken being strangled, plucked and processed into the gross, half-green nugget that causes all the carnage. Here, directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion show some real style, but it all goes downhill fast.

You always know you're watching a bad comedy when the first few dozens jokes fall flat, and such is the case with COOTIES. While star Elijah Wood is always appealing, the character is maybe too goofy (his novel is an amusingly bad Stephen King circa-'Christine' knockoff) in that these movies usually require a protagonist who plays things relatively straight. Here, he's just as goofy as the rest of his fellow teachers. It's a shame COOTIES doesn't work, as the cast is top-notch. Rainn Wilson is usually worth watching, but his macho gym-teacher ultimately becomes too much like Dwight from THE OFFICE. The same goes for Jack McBrayer from 30 ROCK. It would have been nice to see them stretch. Their jokes feel old and flat, and neither does anything here you haven't seen them do before.

The most effective cast-members are probably Leigh Whannell, who's best known for writing and appearing in SAW and INSIDIOUS, as the school's resident wacko, while Alison Pill is cute-as-a-button as Wood's love interest- being a childhood friend of Wood's that's now teaching at the same school, and is trapped in a relationship with Wilson's crude ex-jock.

It's a drag giving COOTIES a bad review, as I'm sure it was a fun film to make, but for me it wasn't a fun film to watch, and by half-hour in, I was constantly checking my watch hoping it was almost over. Despite everyone's best efforts, the film quickly peters out and becomes an ordeal not unlike last year's Sundance horror-comedy HELL BABY. Maybe it's that this genre is hard to do, but pitted against something like THE GUEST or even LIFE AFTER BETH and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, COOTIES comes up short.

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