Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Devil's Playground

Year: 2015
Director:  Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion
Cast: Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill 
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

By every sense of the word, cinematic zombies are dead. The gargantuan success of The Walking Dead (and all the other sub-Romero shows that have latched onto its influence like remora on a shark) has creative a sucking void in the silver screen. Other than decent but hardly exemplary dribbles of undead revenants in flicks like World War Z or Warm Bodies, the gut muncher craze of the 2000s is dead as a doornail (that’s been shot in the head).

And out of death, rebirth. Spectrevision’s zombie comedy Cooties could hardly be considered a massive release, but certainly releases massive laughs, applying a jolt of electricity to the heart of the languishing subgenre.

Just when you thought you were safe.

If you’ve ever wanted a detailed account of how chicken nuggets are made, you’re in luck. Following a sickeningly detailed opening sequence that will get you swearing off McDonalds with the force of ten Super Size Me’s, young substitute teacher and aspiring horror novelist Clint (Elijah Wood, whose career path is always an adventure) discovers that  nugget-borne virus has affected the students in the school, transforming them into ravenous zombies with a taste for human flesh.

He must band together with the other teachers, including macho gym coach Wade (Rainn Wilson), his girlfriend and Clint’s crush Lucy (Alison Pill), right wing Sarah Palin clone Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad), socially awkward biology teacher Doug (Leigh Whannell, who also co-wrote the script), and Jack McBrayer character Tracy (Jack McBrayer), as well as the few surviving students, to attempt to beat back the horde and survive the day. So, basically, a regular shift for a substitute teacher.

Ask not for whom the school bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

Whenever one is assessing a horror comedy, it’s always important to get a bead on which genre it favors. It just wouldn’t do to go into Ghostbusters expecting spine-chilling frights (unless you’re six-year-old me, in which case it might just cause some detailed emotional scarring). So I’m going to let you know right now that Cooties is primarily a comedy, trafficking in horror scenarios and carnage, but always more content to tickle your ribs than wrench them out.

The element that separates Cooties from your average horror comedy is that it’s actually pretty damn funny. It’s of a sophomoric and irreverent bent, but if you open your heart broad enough, it’s a ray of sunshine. Only the main characters are developed to any point past a particularly funny SNL sketch, but they provide such consistent humor that it’s hard to complain. In fact, the best moments of the film come from when it just lets the characters be themselves. Their rowdy caricatures match the heightened tone of the film, bouncing off of one another in epically silly displays.

The real strength of Cooties is its cast, most of whom are seasoned comic performers. However, their experience comes from such different mediums (sitcoms, sketch comedy, feature films) that bringing them all together leads to a tangle of unexpected directions. Leigh Whannell is perhaps the standout here, because his character is so deliciously strange (either he saved the best part for himself or he’s growing into his front-of-the-camera talents), but there’s not a sour note in the entire cast. Even Elijah Wood, whose experience lies farthest from the wacky, provides a clueless earnestness and a keen awareness of his character’s buried flaws that he’s a more or less perfect straight man and audience entry point with a few good punchlines of his own.

He’s the one ringer to rule them all.

Although the comedy is the focal point of Cooties, it’s still a pretty terrific film in other respects: We all know by this point that I’m a sucker for a bold color scheme (“You had me at that red wash”) but the block color lighting present in many sequences highlights the childish fantasy aspect of the film with lurid primary colors. At its heart, Cooties is about the generational war between younger adults and children, and these highly saturated hues emphasize how these character are desperately clinging to their juvenile motivations and antics. They’re forced to take responsibility and grow up when the new generation rises up, forcing them to assume more adult roles. And you thought that this was a movie about zombies.

I mean, yeah, it totally is. The gruesome, pigtail ripping, entrail gnawing “suffer the little children” gore setpieces kind of betray that. But Cooties is smart enough to use the Romero approach to its undead revenants, bringing them into a social and political context that elevates the film from its bare bones survival plot.

Isn’t horror fun?

Unfortunately, the effortless entertainment of Cooties has an expiration date. By the time the third act drags itself to the finish line on bloody stumps, much of the film’s high quality has deteriorated, It just plain has no earthly idea how to end, wandering from setpiece to setpiece as it attempts to find the missing link that wraps this whole story up It never does, and the film does end so much as it peters out. It’s like a song fading on its chorus, slowly deflating until it vanishes completely.

During the course of this lamentable excursion, a major thematic throughline (Clint’s horror novel) is abruptly dropped like a Beyoncé album, and the film introduces an unnecessary tertiary character that is both trite and kinda racist. Generic third acts betray a lot of quality horror films, but the chasm between the final twenty minutes and the rest of the film is dizzyingly wide.

However, Cooties pulls through on life support. The sheer exuberance of the first hour makes up for the creative deficit of the final third and it’s short enough not to painfully overstay its welcome. I do wish it closed at a much clearer point, but I’m happy it opened in the first place, delivering us plenty of insight, belly laughs, and irritating children getting what they deserve along the way.

TL;DR: Cooties is an exuberant, fun horror comedy with an unfortunately lame third act.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1040

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