When the explosive trailer for Willy’s Wonderland first dropped, our hearts soared. Out of the darkness of 2020 sprang this wondrous merging of two of our favorite worlds – finally, Nicolas Cage would be in an actual slasher movie, laying waste to all in his path. Rather than playing the killer, however, the beloved character actor is up against a whole arcade’s worth of animatronic toys. Comparisons to game series Five Nights at Freddy’s naturally abounded but, although a movie adaptation has long been in the works for that, it’s safe to say Willy’s Wonderland is its own thing. First and foremost, the kills are much more gruesome and don’t hinge on doors not closing in time.
Related: Composer Émoi Discusses His Musical Contributions to Willy’s Wonderland and Creating the Voice of Willy
Cage’s character is listed only as “The Janitor.” He doesn’t utter a single word for the entire movie, which shouldn’t work and probably wouldn’t with anybody else but suits the enigmatic, uniquely gifted star down to the dirty ground. Cage reportedly expressed his desire to act without words previously, and here he’s got his wish and then some. It doesn’t matter who speaks to him, or even what happens over the course of his wild night at Willy’s, the Janitor will not respond with anything more than an eyebrow raise, a curt nod, or a grunt. He’s like John Wick, with a softer belly, more receded hairline and even less to lose. He just wants to clean the place and get the hell out of there.
The Janitor rolls into town like Cage has just come straight from the set of Drive Angry, in a slick muscle car whose tires are unceremoniously torn up by an instrument placed in the road by local law enforcement (led by Beth Grant, reliably prickly as always). He’s promised a quick tune-up if this newcomer will simply give Willy’s a decent one-over. Without any means of paying for the required job, the Janitor begrudgingly agrees. Meanwhile, across town, a group of local kids is plotting to burn the place to the ground to rid it of a tortured history that’s gradually, devilishly revealed over the course of the movie. Their paths soon cross and bloody mayhem ensues, courtesy of Willy and his pals.
Happily, the only kid who’s given a fully-fledged personality is Final Girl Liv (a spirited Emily Costa). Her friends, including the guy who clearly fancies her, are little more than archetypes, from the horny couple to the non-believer who insists everybody go home even after they’ve rocked up at Willy’s. Oftentimes, screenwriters become too enamored with their characters and waste time giving them plenty to do instead of utilizing them as fodder for the killer. Here, that isn’t an issue. Liv’s buddies are dispensed with with ruthless efficiency by Willy and his cohorts, who include a gator, a turtle, and a creepy fairy modeled after Tinkerbell.
One of Willy’s Wonderland’s greatest strengths is in the character design of its cast of villains. Willy and the rest are played by actors in character suits, all of whom move in the kind of rickety manner you’d expect from a crew of possessed animatronics come to life. They’re creepy and gross, with rotting, razor-sharp metal teeth and weird oozing goo coming out of every orifice. Moreover, when the Janitor kills ‘em, the animals expunge oil, rather than blood. It’s a fun touch in a movie loaded with dark charm, from the ear-worm “It’s Your Birthday” song to the line delivery when each character informs their human prey they’re about to eat their souls or their eyeballs or something else horrible.
Cage sells the living hell out of it, whether he’s pounding an energy drink, pounding the buttons on a pinball machine, or pounding an animatronic. Nobody else could pull of this role the way he does – likely because there wasn’t a whole lot there on the page, but I digress – and Willy’s Wonderland is as enjoyable as it is because we fully believe in Cage as the Janitor. His victory over Willy isn’t exactly guaranteed, but it’s not entirely surprising how the thing turns out either. As with many films of this nature, the journey is more important than the destination and watching Cage laying waste to a bunch of cutesy giant toys is a delight, however way you swing it (and he swings it many ways).
The kills are gory, bloody and violent, while the body count is impressively high overall. Thankfully, although there is a dumb, slutty female character (sigh) she doesn’t have to show any skin to seal her fate. And, somewhat progressively – clutching at straws here – her boyfriend is seen to be just as guilty. When it comes to memorable kills, Willy’s Wonderland is somewhat lacking however the film is so relentlessly gory and action-packed it hardly matters. You’ll power through it in the same manner the Janitor dispatches with his foes. It’s ideal Saturday night viewing in a way, because there isn’t too much thinking required but there’s enough meat where it matters.
Director Kevin Lewis relegates most of the action to the kids’ playhouse itself, and he’s got a keen eye for shooting around tight spaces like corridors and vents (where one of the movie’s biggest scares takes place), so we’re constantly wondering what’s lurking just beyond our periphery. The layout of Willy’s itself is cool, colorful and inviting, making the place’s dark legacy considerably more stomach-churning – this is definitely a place you could imagine kids feeling safe. The tight script, by G.O. Parsons, is loaded with moments of caustic humor. The phrase “tongue in cheek” is overused but here it’s genuinely apt. Taking all this madness seriously would require a lobotomy.
All that’s to say Willy’s Wonderland is a total blast from start to finish. Funny, furiously violent, and with one of the coolest Cage performances this side of Mandy. On that note, Lewis allegedly claimed Beyond the Black Rainbow as an influence here. Aside from the giddy retro-wave score by Émoi, that seems like a very strange comparison and yet it should make you love this wacky little slasher even more.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Kevin Lewis
Writer(s): G.O. Parsons
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Beth Grant, Emily Tosta, Ric Reitz
Release date: February 12, 2021
Studio/Production Company: JD Entertainment
Run Time: 88 minutes