If you liked 2022’s brilliant culinary classism takedown “The Menu”, try another deliciously devious satire from 2014, “Cooties”.
One only had to see director Mark Mylod’s The Menu (currently streaming on HBO Max) to remember that it’s a delicious time to enjoy horror (or horror-adjacent, if you insist) movies.
The Menu is a darkly comic, class-conscious celebration of the world’s industry workers and the labor that brings meticulously-prepared food too often underappreciated to the entitled public that consumes it. Over the course of the film, one never truly understands what might appear next on the menu – but everyone who deserves it gets their just desserts before the film reaches its fiery conclusion.
For some, the film left viewers demanding seconds, even thirds.
Luckily, those not yet sated by THE MENU need look no further than the 2014 film COOTIES, a comedic horror movie that similarly highlights the differences in social castes against a backdrop of culinary creepiness.
TRY COOTIES (2014)
Cooties tells the story of Clint Hadson (Elijah Wood), an aspiring horror writer working by day as a substitute teacher, who finds himself at Fort Chicken Elementary for a substitute assignment and face-to-face with his high school crush Lucy McCormick (Alison Pill).
What begins as Clint’s awkward efforts to wrest Lucy from the clutches of her boyfriend, Wade Johnson (Rainn Wilson), turns into a fight for survival by the teaching staff against an army of bloodthirsty elementary kids – transformed into zombie-like killers after eating contaminated chicken nuggets, the only meal prepubescent children are likely to call “food” without devolving into a temper tantrum at dinnertime.
The satirical class criticism of The Menu utilized the Uber elite Hawthorn setting to demonstrate that the self-absorbed, corrupt upper class can’t appreciate fine dining or the hard work that goes into it.
In so doing, the film’s biting humor turns each of the Hawthorn’s guests into a form of a game for the restaurant staff. These fiendish foodies will pay in one way or another for their sins against food industry workers, the working class in general, and their fellow man.
Cooties, meanwhile, uses Fort Chicken’s traditional elementary school lunch of chicken nuggets in a similar and divergent way.
Pop culture has often highlighted the fundamental differences between adults and children. John Hughes’ 1985 teen dramedy The Breakfast Club remains one of the best cinematic documents illustrating the differences that exist between young people and adults, while body-swap films like Freaky Friday (1976) have been hilariously recycled on the big screen to explore similar dynamics in age.
It’s an existential narrative seemingly as old as time itself.
What child, after all, hasn’t felt that adults are completely out of touch – monstrous, even – and incapable of understanding their fundamental needs and concerns?
For that matter, what adult – parent, relative, or teacher – hasn’t imagined that children hail from another planet altogether as well? Or are, at the very least, creatures whose personalities are as fickle as a leaf carried by the wind?
The basic distinctions between adult and child are precisely what is highlighted in Cooties, yet those dissimilarities are displayed through the teacher-student relationships at Fort Chicken Elementary, the hunter-prey dichotomy of classic zombie movies like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and 28 Days Later (2002), and brash, dark humor.
The effort, to be clear, is effective.
Elijah Wood had dipped his toe into the horror genre as early as his 1990 for-TV movie Child in the Night, and then again in The Good Son (1993) and The Faculty (1998). Much later, he would fully commit to the genre as the malicious protagonist in the remake of Maniac (2012) and as a co-founder of the independent film company SpectreVision, which has produced a number of genre films, including A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), The Boy (2015), and Mandy (2018).
In Cooties, Wood is perfect as the awkward substitute teacher slash would-be novelist, only a little more successful at dispatching 10-year-old flesh-eating children than at writing a story with a discernible plot, cast of characters, and purpose.
And as the unlikely leader of creature killers, Wood is in notable comedic company, joined by Rainn Wilson, Kate Flannery, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, and co-screenwriter Leigh Whannell.
The film’s screenplay speaks to the actors’ strengths throughout and never seems to devolve into predictability, which is dangerously easy to do with a subgenre so saturated with similar films.
But the denunciation of society’s corrupted upper class in The Menu is not meant to indicate much will change after the lessons taught by Chef Julian Slowik.
The film never suggests that Hawthorn’s guests will ever understand the people who feed them or ultimately appreciate culinary art more than they adore criticizing it. (Even when Tyler learns that one of the chefs already knows his name without a formal introduction, Tyler has no interest whatsoever in knowing the chef’s name in return – let alone acknowledging his existence as anything more than a kitchen appliance capable of preparing succulent meals.)
Try as they might, Hawthorn’s clientele is consigned to their fate as a result of their transgressions.
The Menu doesn’t even include a call to action asking the audience to consider correcting its own behavior in the real world.
The filmmakers never appear entirely confident that change is within the general public’s capacity. It’s the nutritional detail written in small print at the bottom of the metaphorical menu itself.
Meanwhile, Cooties doesn’t try for some impossible reconciliation between Fort Chicken Elementary’s mediocre teaching staff and the deranged kids dead set on devouring it.
There’s no peaceful resolution here, either.
Yes, the humor in The Menu might be a bit more nuanced from time to time. The humor might even inspire some reflective thought on the part of those who have worked in the anxiety-inducing food industry.
But Cooties is far more concerned with a bombastic body count, with quick-witted delivery faster than any pizza franchise.
The stylistic humor of both films allows the viewer to appreciate the more subtle punchlines of The Menu without minimizing the unapologetically laugh-out-loud, ridiculously hilarious satire of Cooties.
Further, both films possess their share of heart, despite the blood spilled along the way.
That one film succeeds as a satire about elitism or the other as a satire about public education will fall upon the audience to determine — if they can.
Truly, Cooties illustrates its thesis with fascinating FX and comedic fun if that’s your brand of burger. That The Menu makes a target of highbrow hubris while Cooties makes a target of bone-crunching brats simply speaks to the different methods filmmakers can employ in making a statement about humanity.
Either film simply comes down to a matter of taste.
It’s certainly food for thought.