Macon Blair's debut feature as writer & director stuns, as real life revenge devolves into chaotic violence after a woman is robbed by heartless criminals & she decides on reclaiming her safety.
Cooties. 2015. Directed by Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion. Screenplay by Leigh Whannell & Ian Brennan.
Starring Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Ian Brennan, Jorge Garcia, Cooper Roth, Miles Elliot, Morgan Lily, Sunny May Allison, and Armani Jackson. Glacier Films/SpectreVision.
Rated R. 88 minutes.
Officially out now on iTunes, Cooties was announced a little over two years ago. I remember seeing the premise alone and thinking this would be, at the very least, a bit of a good laugh. Admittedly, I’m not actually huge on horror-comedies. Funny that I love comedy and I am way in love with horror, yet the combination of both isn’t something that immediately appeals to me.
That being said, there are definitely instances of horror-comedy I’ve loved. Like Shaun of the Dead, which is almost the pinnacle to me of the sub-genre. There’s also Dead Alive, Gremlins, pieces of An American Werewolf in London are definitely full of comedy, Return of the Living Dead, House (a favourite of mine), and many more.
Cooties isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the best horror-comedy films to come out in awhile. There are lots of good laughs, solidly executed horror, and a pretty excellent script. This movie never takes itself too seriously; not to a fault, but enough to make it feel genuine. Some good performances help the whole film succeed, even in its slower moments. Rainn Wilson, of whom I’m not a fan, actually is pretty awesome. Not just him: Elijah Wood is great, Alison Pill cracked me up almost constantly, Nasim Pedrad played such an amazingly satirical character and proves she’s a real good comedian, and even the other much smaller roles had me in stitches.
But it’s the horror I love – the sweet, sweet horror.
The opening sequence of the film is pretty spooky, as well as nasty. Like churn your stomach nasty. Tainted nuggets… need I say more?
After this opener, Cooties shifts into comedy/dark comedy mode for a little portion. Which works extremely well. From a screenplay by Ian Brennan and Leigh Whannell, the comedy is genuine. It’s not awkward comedy, as some might expect seeing Rainn Wilson, however, it isn’t at all. There are some hilarious moments, especially from Elijah Wood whose character has a boyish charm while carrying the weight of the adult world on his shoulders; a writer trying hard to be whats he wants, stuck teaching when he’d rather be writing a novel as he says he is.
Still, things get intense fairly quick once the horror rears its fierce head. What I love is that the movie is only an hour and a half, not even, so the plot kicks in and runs wild without enough preamble to numb you. For a horror-comedy, this is an efficient technique and certainly made me enjoy Cooties even more than I might normally enjoy other movies in the sub-genre.
Killer kid movies always freak me out. Something about the innocence of children combined with evil – and in this case an illness/virus – really just gets to me, in an awfully heavy way.
The kids in Cooties are creepy. Plain and simple. One of the first intense scenes is when Wade Johnson (Rainn Wilson) finds himself trapped on the basketball court, surrounded by a bunch of the kids; they’re hissing, snarling, growls and blood and pus come out of them.
Something I enjoy about the killer kid sub-genre is how it subverts how we feel about children. You don’t feel any fear from them. When you see a kid, as an adult, there’s nothing threatening about them. Even when it comes to really messed up kids who might talk a good tough game, worst comes to worst you can pick a kid up and throw them if necessary. However, when the evil aspect comes into play – in film – there’s something in that subversion, something about how the children suddenly become threatening, which unsettles me at the core. It’s the innocence coming back into play, in a very sinister sense.
Even more so, Cooties pits school teachers against the kids they’re meant to be teaching, caring for, moulding into responsible young adults. There’s something even more wrenching about seeing these educators forced to kill the ones they’ve protected so long, similar to zombie films where we see parents have to kill their children or children forced to kill their parents. Something about this whole idea eats away at me. And even though there’s plenty of comedy peppered in throughout, I think there’s an absolutely relentless sense of dread happening from start to finish which never ever lets go.
What I enjoy so much about this movie is the fact it balances so well the aspects of horror and comedy. This is the strength of any solid horror-comedy, if they can find a balance somehow that ultimately works equally on both fronts. What I found worked, for me, is that Cooties teeters back and forth between riotous moments and nasty horror. I mean, there’s a genuine dose of R-rated horror here a lot of other filmmakers would be too afraid to include in their own films.
When Johnson (Wilson) kills the first kid with a fire extinguisher, I knew it was coming but there’s still an effective scare in that moment. Particularly I love the makeup special effects, the blood spray all over Johnson and the wall behind him, speckled red dots everywhere. A true horror scene. Often times there’s a comedic aspect to kills in horror-comedy; this is not one of those kills. In the midst of the comedy comes a brutal, vicious scene. Not only that, the weight is evident on the character of Wade Johnson, as he sorts of loses his fun loving attitude afterwards and takes a bit of time alone.
The cinematography all around is pretty awesome. There’s a genuine atmosphere from start to finish, which sort of evolves from section to section. Lyle Vincent is the one responsible for the camerawork here – he also did 2012’s Devoured, a decent little indie horror with some teeth, and also the downright fantastic A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (you can see a marquee poster for this movie at around the 1 hour 17 minute mark, or a little after, as the survivors pass a theatre). So knowing those two pieces – liking the latter more than the former – it’s no surprise Vincent is able to give Cooties an interesting look and feel. At the start, even in the creepy/nauseating opening sequence, there’s this real bright, shiny type of aesthetic happening – this leads through a bit to when the darkness comes into play. Following the “turn” of the children, a more gritty yet still colourful scheme begins. The vividness of colour persists, only darker now, along with the shadowy halls of the school, lit here and there with neon Exit signs, and the dull, sickly makeup of the kids, bloody and diseased looking. Tons of great visual stuff happening in terms of how the cinematography is both bright and gritty.
Also, there’s a rocking score from Kreng (Pepijn Caudron) – lots of cool electronic stuff happening. Unlike many modern horror movies trying to evoke a retro 1980s style soundtrack, I found this goes for the electronic sound while not necessarily trying to riff off the ’80s particularly. It might have that type of vibe, but for me it’s not the typical modern horror score. Helps the different aspects of Cooties become more intense, along with Vincent’s cinematography, whether it be the action-horror scenes near the end or the plain creepy horror moments throughout. A great horror score, definitely a bit different than some of the other stuff as of late from the indie horror scene.
I have to mention one of my favourite scenes. It’s very close to the end, so without spoiling anything, the group of teachers trying to fend off all the infected/zombie children wander into a sort of McDonalds PlayPlace type of building. They find the PlayPlace itself, a massive jungle gym full of infected kids, frothing at the mouth, hissing and screaming, laughing like maniacs. The part I love is the lead-up, where first the group comes inside and the dark closes everything in, the flashlights give us enough to see bright party decorations, half eaten cake and nuggets; there’s this eerie quality to the scene I found incredible. Then when the lights go up, a neon multicoloured disco light ball turns, there’s this WHOA second where you can’t get over how wildly creepy the scene has become.
With a decent ending, that doesn’t try to wrap things up cleanly and to a precise point, I think Cooties overall gets a 4 out of 5 star rating. I loved the excellent mix of horror (good dose of blood/gore) and comedy. Plenty of good laughs, but horror wins out above anything else. There’s a lot of great intense kid-centric horror. This doesn’t shy away from showing any kids infected, bleeding, or straight up being killed. Though it isn’t malicious in the sense of useless violence. Mostly, as I said before, the subversion of the roles of the teachers in this film really makes things interesting, and horrific at various times for both the audience and the characters.
This is out now via iTunes, so get a copy! Maybe not everyone will love it like I did, but as someone not often drawn into horror-comedies, I’d at least suggest you give it a try.
TOAD ROAD is a haunting modern story of drug abuse.
Maniac. 2012. Dir. Franck Khalfoun. Screenplay by Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur; based on the original screenplay for the 1980 film by Joe Spinell.
Starring Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, and America Olivo. Canal+.
Rated 18A. 89 minutes.
★★★★ (Blu ray release)
First off, I really enjoyed the William Lustig directed original Maniac with Joe Spinell from 1980 (click for a review of that one from Rare Horror). There is a certain gritty, low-class charm to that movie which just really works. Spinell, of course, really terrified me, and most everyone who watched him become that insane killer onscreen.
But along comes Alexandre Aja, producing as well as doing some writing with Gregory Levasseur, and recreates Maniac, with help from director Franck Khalfoun. This vision of the film is even more crazy, more intense than the original, in my opinion. They took an idea, fleshed it out, changed it up a little, and came out the other side with something even more bizarre and frightening.
Not only do I find it more disturbing and more frightening than the original, it also uses unique techniques to really get the audience inside the killer’s head. The entire film, save for a rare few shots here or there at opportune and specific points (each with their own reason), is shot from the perspective of the killer, Frank (Wood). This means we see his whole life right from the windows of his soul. It is creepy. Also highly engaging: everything Frank sees, we see. We experience his experiences. The blood gets on his hands, and it feels like we’re there. Great way to immerse people in a character. Not forgetting how difficult it can be at times, depending on the story and situation, to film a movie as if right in the killer’s direct point-of-view.
The whole plot of Maniac revolves around Frank and his delusions. He restores mannequins in a shop his mother used to own. It becomes more clear as time goes by, the influence of his mother looms larger over his life, and has obviously damaged Frank in some way; it’s clear to us which way, very clear, immediately. Frank later meets Anna, and this shows some promise of maybe taking Frank out of his delusions. Although soon enough we see this will not be the case, whatsoever. Frank likes to scalp women. He likes to take the scalps home and staple them to his mannequins. He wants to build a life; one full of lifeless, obedient, perfect mannequins of his choosing. Frank is certainly a maniac.
Aja, whether he is directing or producing, always manages to dowse his films with incredible effects. Maniac, beyond its fresh use of point-of-view filmmaking, is ripe with blood and guts and disgusting things. Not only the blood, but there are some other images, horrifying sexual ones at times, that really stick with you long after the credits roll. A lot of the effects in Maniac are beyond visceral.
In fact, one of the best effects happens nearly right off the bat. The first scene depicts Frank stalking his newly discovered prey. He follows a young woman from a bar, all the way right up to her apartment door. Frank then ambushes her viciously, and takes his prize: a fresh and sloppy scalp. As he holds the girl by the back of her head, gripping her hair and slicing away, the scalp slips off, as its poor owner falls in a pile of dead weight on the floor. Sets the tone for Maniac and lets you know it will not be skimping on any of the horror, any of the gore for this remake. This kick starts the film’s pistons, which never stop pumping.
Another noteworthy mention about Maniac is the score. This film’s music blows me away. I can listen to it on its own, which I don’t often do with a film score or soundtrack either way. But the music is haunting. It’s a mix of piano and electronic music. The sounds get under your skin. There’s something about them that draws you in, taking you to Frank’s world. The score is beautiful and creepy, all at once. There’s something elegant and terrifying in the main theme especially. Sets the overall mood and jives well with Khalfoun’s atmosphere.
On top of the effects present, the film is really carried by Eljah Wood and his eerie performance as Frank. Khalfoun mentions in the Blu ray’s Making Of featurette how there is something more disturbing about a killer who does not look the part; for instance, comparing Spinell’s brutish character to Wood’s more slim look. One of the things which really works for Wood is the fact he doesn’t particularly appear imposing. You take one look at Wood and you don’t really feel the same fear as you might when meeting Joe Spinell in a dark alley, whether in a film or not.
Wood draws out Frank’s character with a lot of subtle acting. There are times when he goes wild, of course, however, it’s mostly the small, quiet moments where Wood really gets into things, and the character goes to fascinatingly creepy places. Without a really strong central performance a lot of horror films fall flat on their faces. With Wood and what I believe are his wonderful talents, Maniac really soars above most modern horrors where filmmakers often go for effects, whether CGI or practical, over character and plot.
As a horror film, Maniac is a 5 star experience. A lot of people expect a remake to expand on the original concept, as well as maybe step it up a little – if you feel that way and don’t believe Maniac delivers, then I have no idea what you’re really looking for in a remake. On its own this stands as a great modern horror, which to me will be a classic one day down the road. Even as a remake, this still holds its weight. The 1980 Maniac is loved dearly by a lot of hardcore slasher and horror fans. But I don’t see why people can’t get with this one. It is a fresh update; creepy, frightening, and gory at times. With, as I said, a spectacular lead performance in Elijah Wood. 5 out of 5 all the way.
Concerning the Blu ray release, it’s a 4 out of 5 stars. There is a great Making Of featurette, as well as a poster gallery, and some good commentary with Khalfoun and Wood. But there isn’t anything that really bumps this Blu ray above anything else in terms of being packed with extras. The quality is phenomenal. There’s nothing like watching a horror with style on a good screen in real high definition. You get to really dig into the effects. Not to mention the sound is quality – top notch.
Check this out. The Blu ray is beyond worth it, but don’t really expect there to be anything too amazing. The one featurette included is an hour long, so that’s not disappointing. You’ll get your money’s worth that’s for sure. Just not particularly my favourite release in terms of extra features that I have on my shelf, personally. As a movie, you can’t go wrong. This is a solid horror with many creepy, creepy scenes. This still lingers with me, even when I haven’t watched it in months.
Another Rare Horror review can be found here – this time for the remake.