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“COOTIES” (Stanley Film Festival Review)

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Editor’s Note: FANGORIA previously reviewed COOTIES following its debut at Sundance in 2014. Following its acquisition by Lionsgate, the film has been re-edited and added a new ending. The version that played at the Stanley Film Festival and was subject to this review is the new, upcoming theatrical cut.

As horror fans know all too well, horror comedy is a very difficult subgenre to balance. Often time, filmmakers will approach the material with a vision that leans either too far in its horror or the comedy rather than something mutually dependent on both elements. Yet once in a blue moon, fans will find a horror comedy that captures that balance with near perfection, offering something much more terrifying than your average darker-than-dark comedy. Luckily, COOTIES falls into this category, jumping between absurdity and humanity while exploiting its side-splitting premise with terrifying precision.

By now, fright fans should be familiar with the concept behind the long-delayed horror story, as an elementary school is hit by a zombie-like infection that only affects those who have yet to reach puberty, pitting the unprepared teachers against the ravenous students. However, COOTIES offers much more beyond that basic yet brilliant story, investing much time in a central love triangle and our lead’s stillborn writing career. But COOTIES also keeps in mind its comedic edge, and thanks to Leigh Whannell and Ian Brennan’s often hilarious script, the film hits as hard with its comedy as it does with its gory business.

Make no mistake: COOTIES is a hard R, especially considering that most of the movies kill scenes happen to rage-zombie children while the adults who do meet an on-screen end are literally torn to shreds. In doing this, directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott offers a real sense of danger to the proceedings and establish the kids are a force to be reckoned with, and almost take pride in how far they’re willing to take their conceit. At the same time, Murnion and Milott also mine as much humor from the situation as possible, using both Brennan and Whannell’s comedic sensibilities as well as that of the cast to evoke laughter in the face of even the darkest hours.

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While the film may have exploited a grimmer tone in its initial state, especially considering the dark opening and supposedly bleak original ending, this cut of COOTIES is much more fun, exploring some of the campier and hyperreal situations all the way ‘til the rousing ending. However, by doing so, Murnion and Milott’s more serious moments, even from the most unexpected characters, play much better in contrast, and allow some of the characters to appear less like caricatures. Of course, some of these characters are, in fact, one-dimensional, including the gossipy hardcore conservative teacher (played by SNL’s Nasim Pedrad) and the obviously closeted gay teacher (played by 30 ROCK’s Jack McBrayer), and not every joke works throughout the film. But for the most part, the characters often get a moment to shine outside of their one-liners, making the film an exceptional case of horror comedy done right.

Murnion and Milott also have the benefit of having a great team behind the camera on COOTIES as well. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent gets to add more visual flair than the standard zombie film, especially during some of the scarier set pieces towards the end of the film (including an amazingly hilarious ALIENS homage). Furthermore, the score from kreng is rather great, which helps punctuate some of the stranger visuals and more intense moments. And the SFX/VFX from Joseph DiValerio, Josh Hakian and Terminal FX makes COOTIES even more memorable, delivering a plethora of gruesome special effects that are sure to evoke just as many laughs as there are gasps.

Yet COOTIES strongest asset is its cast, each of whom devotes to the questionably tasteful premise and situations with gusto. Elijah Wood and Alison Pill are great as Clint and Lucy, our lead protagonists who find themselves taking initiative while wrestling with their own personal imperfections as well. Rainn Wilson is equally as impressive, powering through improv comedy, genuine drama and even moments of pure badassness. Hell, even Leigh Whannell’s character, who is often the scene-stealer of COOTIES, is does more with the “idiot savant” archetype to show off a funnier side of himself than previously seen on the big screen.

While not quite the perfect horror comedy, COOTIES is a complete and utter blast, featuring a provocative premise that makes the film destined for midnight movie greatness. From the disturbing opening sequence to the cheer-worthy climax, COOTIES walks a tonal tightrope effortlessly to offer the funniest and scariest product possible while never compromising on either front. COOTIES is thankfully original and ambitious, perhaps sometimes too ambitious for its own good, but nevertheless an effective genre joyride for those who like their macabre with a heaping dose of mischief. And with an excellent new ending, which will likely strike terror into the hearts of any birthday party-season parent, there’s a glimmer of hope that, if the stars align, COOTIES might spread to another tale in the future.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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