Nicolas Cage is great, isn’t he?
In recent years, the veteran actor has warmly embraced his B-movie chops with a string of widely-loved hits like Mandy and Colour Out of Space, and a few duds aside – looking at you, Jiu Jitsu – this has given his career a second wind. The much-anticipated Willy’s Wonderland follows the trend of the former films: a bouncy, enjoyable B-movie horror that does exactly what it says on the tin.
Widely touted as an unofficial adaptation of the Five Nights at Freddy’s game series, Willy’s Wonderland follows an unnamed, silent journeyman (Cage, brooding to the best of his ability) as he breaks down in Hayesville, a sleepy town known best for being the home of the once-famed children’s restaurant Willy’s Wonderland. With no cash to pay for his repairs, he instead opts for one night of labour to make up for it: the simple task of cleaning the place up so its owner, Tex (Ric Reitz), can open it once again. But of course, not all is as it seems…
Straight off the bat, Willy’s Wonderland does absolutely everything to fit into the canon of mid-budget Nicolas Cage craziness. It’s no spoiler to say that the animatronic robots in Willy’s Wonderland are more than meets the eye, with a setup similar to that of Child’s Play, and when the oil (here a replacement of blood) starts flowing, it’s really hard not to get engrossed. Cage’s character, referred to as the Janitor, never utters a word, and it’s a performance in some ways much more reserved than his usual fare. That said, when it comes to combat, he fits back into the action hero mould, with bloody combat that really packs a punch.
Director Kevin Lewis injects the film with such a brazen personality, and aside from the FNaF comparisons, there’s really nothing else like it: where else than a late-career Nicolas Cage film would a gruesome action scene take place with ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ playing in the background? It plays to the lead’s strengths excellently, and even without speaking, Cage fills the role with swagger and machismo – with some fleeting hints of character development sprinkled in too.
Yet what’s surprisingly effective about Willy’s Wonderland is how well it works as a pseudo-horror. Its influences, as mentioned, are prevalent in the final product, but Lewis pulls it off with aplomb. Some of the jump-scares, while cheap, are genuinely effective, and I had to turn down my volume at one point because the sound design is so crisp that it was almost overwhelming. Character designs are equally creepy, with Siren Sara’s uncanny-valley humanity providing the most unsettling moments in the film. All the animatronics in Willy’s Wonderland, and the restaurant itself, absolutely nail the design: looking like they had their heyday fifteen years ago, and slotting nicely into the category of children’s designs that, while good-natured, are unintentionally creepy.
Perhaps the biggest downside to Willy’s Wonderland is the obtrusive presence of a group of teens who ultimately become intertwined with the Janitor’s battle, following an unwelcome horror trope of infuriatingly underwritten human leads. The dialogue between these teens is very corny – comprising of flirtation, drug references or thinly veiled one-sentence character outlines – and they aren’t particularly endearing or likeable, which makes them feel very flat compared to Cage. This is undoubtedly the point – no mid-budget horror aims to craft nuanced fodder for the monsters to maim – but they feel so thinly written, with the sexualised teen girl and the machismo teen boy among others, that it distracts from an otherwise bubbly experience.
But that isn’t anywhere near enough to dampen the brazen, balls-to-the-wall fun that Willy’s Wonderland provides. It’s late-era Cage at his best, satiating the thirst for brutal, switch-your-brain-off B-movie action brilliantly, and while it’s of course nothing revolutionary, it’s a very fun ride indeed.
Signature Entertainment presents Willy’s Wonderland Home Premiere on Digital Platforms 12th February.