A thorough meta joke featuring plenty of laughs, a couple satisfying twists, and a critical bent
In deference to those who haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil too much of CitW's plot. Instead, I'll say this: CitW is one of those meta-exercises that unabashedly critiques horror movies, the people who make them, and their audiences. It's not afraid to do a little moralizing, either. The basic lesson of CitW can be summed up in this exchange:
"You get used to it," one colleague says, following a nasty death sequence.
"Should you?" another replies.
This excerpt illustrates perfectly what Whedon and Goddard find frustrating about modern horror: a blood thirst and immunity to physical horror, which perpetuates mutilation-driven movies like the Saw films and Final Destination series.
Rotten Tomatoes's consensus on CitW blares that the movie is "capable of being funny, strange, and scary-frequently all at the same time". Funny? I'll grant in full. Scary? Only if you startle easily or are freaked out by monsters. Personally, I am one of the immune, so the gruesome scenes in CitW didn't particularly horrify or scare me (they did, however, scare my mom, for what it's worth). If you like monsters, prepare to be delighted; when all hell breaks loose in CitW, it does so literally.
Following the whimsical style of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Whedon's contrast of regular life with mystical portentousness strikes a resounding harmony in CitW. In one scene, a creepy harbinger named Mordecai sermonizes in ominous tones about impending death until realizing that he's being made fun of on speakerphone. CitW is peppered with hilarious moments like these, where Sitterson and Hadley (the facility technicians) guide the film's mood by reacting to horror with nonchalance, self-entitlement, or cheekiness. In turn, their reactions mock those of a typical horror film audience.
Like The Hunger Games, CitW also plays around with the idea of manipulating pawns for the sake of "putting on a good show". There are a number of ways a puppet can play into the hands of his master: on accident, by knowing he's being watched, or because he's under the influence. Behavioral psychologists, rejoice.
Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are pitch-perfect as Sitterson and Hadley. Sigourney Weaver pops in for a brief cameo, hitting the nail right on the head as usual. However, of the student characters (who are practically the Scoody Doo crew), Fran Kranz's Marty is a lonely spark of charisma amid sufficient, unremarkable acting. For example, Anna Hutchinson, who plays Jules (the "whor*"), isn't exactly spellbinding in her debut performance. She has her moments, but occasionally her line delivery takes on this unnatural tone (i.e. when she's asking for directions). That being said, she's a natural when it comes to making out with taxidermized wolves. And like any girls in a horror movie, she and Kristen Connolly (Dana) can scream as though Justin Bieber just announced he's gay. Another reviewer on MovieWeb described Connolly's facial expression throughout CitW as "unsure if she'd just pooped or farted". It's remarkably apt.
All in all, minor complaints aside, this is a great film. Watch it for the laughs, references, hell-borne madness, and genre satire. Leave satisfied.