Over the years, we’ve seen Nicolas Cage fight aliens, monsters and ninjas… but I never thought I’d see him fight animatronic monsters. And I definitely wouldn’t have expected myself to enjoy it when he does.
Which brings us to Willy’s Wonderland.
When his car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, a mysterious stranger (Cage) finds himself stranded with few options. Without cash to pay for the repairs, the owner of Willy’s Wonderland, a local children’s restaurant, offers to pay the tab… if he is willing to spend the night cleaning the establishment. Without other options, the man agrees to become ‘janitor’ for the night and quietly gets to work. However, as the lights go out, he soon finds himself facing off against the building’s possessed animatronic mascots in a battle for survival.
Ridiculous and wonderful, Willy’s Wonderland is a glorious symphony of nonsense that revels in its own campiness. Loosely based on the popular video game Five Nights at Freddie’s, the film makes little sense yet leans into the madness with such enthusiasm that one can’t help but enjoy the ride. Director Kevin Lewis clearly understands the outrageous nature of the premise and never worries about taking itself too seriously. (He even allows the robotic killers to ‘bleed’ motor oil in order to make the scenes feel more brutal.)
Of course, the engine that drives this carnival ride is Cage himself. There are many who have questioned why Cage leans into stranger and stranger roles. However, while some actors seem frustrated by their decision to star in smaller, straight-to-VOD titles, Cage has done so with gusto, deliberately choosing projects that grow increasingly wild. In Wonderland, Cage’s ‘Janitor’ remains shrouded in mystery. Without speaking a single word of dialogue throughout the film, Cage rips these robotic monsters apart with reckless abandon… that is, until his watch alarm goes off and he needs a break for a can of soda and some pinball. (Is he diabetic? Adrenaline junkie? The film never even tries to explain this… but it’s so outlandish that it doesn’t need to do so.)
Whereas many modern horror films attempt at a deeper social commentary, it would be wrong to claim that Willy’s Wonderland has any such goals in mind. (This is a film that wants you to enjoy the carnage rather than ‘prove a point’ or create cultural dialogue.) However, at the same time, embedded within Wonderland is a desire to reclaim cultural innocence. Once a popular children’s establishment, Willy’s is now haunted, not only by demonic beasts, but by its horrifying past as well. What’s more, without giving away any spoilers, the darkness that infests the building has been empowered by others in the community by their stubborn refusal to deal with the trauma. With the arrival of the Janitor, the neighbourhood finally has someone willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. In this way, the film does establish a sense of justice within the film that gives the Janitor something worth fighting for, even if that realization seems somewhat lost on his character.
Let’s be serious, though. Even with this embedded subtext, Willy’s Wonderland is mostly about the madness and mayhem. With every severed robot head and empty pop can, Willy’s Wonderland is laughably fun. Though light on common sense, it’s sheer audacity and carnage make Wonderland the cinematic equivalent of a ride through a freaky funhouse.
I might just have to pay my ticket to ride it again.
Willy’s Wonderland is available on Tuesday, April 13th, 2021 on VOD and on Blu-Ray and DVD on May 11th, 2021