Willy’s Wonderland Never Quite Reaches Its Cult Horror-Comedy Aspirations

Willy’s Wonderland is a would-be cult horror movie starring Nicolas Cage. I debated about instead sneaking in a review of Cage’s (severely underrated, IMO) turn in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, and seeing how long I could sustain the bit, but I finally decided that I should, you know, do my actual job. And the more I thought about it, the more I found that I had something to say about this movie.

I’m certainly not going to say that Willy’s Wonderland is good, but it serves a purpose.

Back in high school sometimes Friday would roll around and instead of going home or going to a sport or an activity you would instead (Especially if you were, like me, kind of an intentional loser) go to one of your friend’s houses. And maybe you’d hit blockbuster (RIP) on the way, or download some movies once you got back to their place, and you’d order a pizza or run out to Taco Bell and maybe some of you would partake of something illicit (my straight-edge self would opt out) and after talking shit about all the popular people in your school, and complaining about whichever teacher had messed up your week, and possibly after that evening’s host had an argument with a parent or a sibling, and possibly after your friends from another school joined you with their own food/illicit substance/tales of injustice, after the week had been properly dealt with, everyone would fling themselves on the floor/couch in interesting and sometimes erotic configurations and a movie like Willy’s Wonderland would be watched.

I want to review the film in that spirit. If I was sixteen, and there wasn’t a pandemic, and my body could still process Taco Bell successfully, I would absolutely let one of my friends-with-cars drive me to whichever friend’s house was the best movie-watching venue, and sprawl on the floor laughing hysterically at this movie whilst eating a beans-no-meat Chalupa and resolutely not partaking of substances.

As a super mature adult… I still laughed hysterically a few times.

Screenshot: Screen Media Films

The plot is what you’d expect: Nicolas Cage slams his hot rod past a small town that traps him and puts him to work cleaning Willy’s Wonderland (a Chuck E. Cheese/Freddy’s type of establishment), in what is actually a ritual sacrifice to appease evil spirits. Along the way, a diverse group of hot, plucky teens try to fight the evil in their town, but often get distracted by their libidos. What’s fun about the movie is the commitment of all the actors and the director—there are moments when this film becomes the wacky horror comedy it wants to be.

The teens are pretty convincing, especially Emily Tosta as the group’s leader, a girl named Liv who has a particular connection to Willy’s. My favorite, however, is Kathy Barnes, a self-described freak who wears a leopard coat and who admits to being kind of turned-on by the animatronics. Given a couple of asides and some significant eye contact with Liv, I think Kathy has a lot more going on than we see in the film.

The town sheriff is played by Beth Grant, whom some of you will remember as the person who questions Mrs. Darko’s commitment to Sparklemotion, and some of you will remember as Marianne Marie Beetle, the purveyor of Muffin Buffalo on Wonderfalls, or maybe the proprietor of Jack’s Crocodile Bar bar in American Gods. She’s always amazing, and she manages to wring a surprising amount of nuance from lines like: “Shit!” (cocks shotgun).

But of course we all know why we’re here, right? We’re here for Nic Cage. And man does he ever not disappoint. His character is a taciturn, unnamed man who might have superpowers? He’s simply called The Janitor. He goes along with everything from being told he has to work overnight at Willy’s to being tossed a Willy’s Wonderland t-shirt to discovering that the animatronic creatures move when they’re not supposed to. His fight scenes with the animatronic creatures are really the strongest bits of the film, with the rest of it providing lulls for you to talk to your friends or make out or unwrap another Gordita or whatever.

Screenshot: Screen Media Films

One of the pleasant surprises of the film, however, was that the narrative arc wasn’t focused so much on the fight scenes, as the cleaning scenes. Cage’s character takes his mission to clean Willy’s surprisingly seriously. The film shows this through a series of montages that are all extreme close-ups of Cage taking a toothbrush to a pinball machine, swooping pans as he scrubs sinks, smashcuts to him opening the janitor’s closet to get clean T-shirts—all of it set to energetic music. Which means that every time one of those animatronic bastards attacks him, it sets all of his work back to square one! Now, it could be that as a former janitor and a former food service person, I became a little too invested in this plot element. (Those bastards! Do you have any idea how much it sucks to clean a urinal even once? But then having to do it again, except this time you have to mop up all the animatronic demon blood???) But I appreciated that the film took its own conceit seriously. Which also leads to the film’s real flaw, even under my generous grading curve.

The creatures are: Willy Weasel, Cammy Chameleon, Tito Turtle, Arty Alligator, Siren Sara, Knighty Knight, Gus Gorilla, and Ozzie Ostrich. And there are some fabulous creepy/hilarious moments with all of them. But here’s where the film had an undeniable weakness: as fun as it is, and as much as it could be a great part of a cheesy horror marathon once we’re all able to be in a room together again, the characters really didn’t get enough characterization. And to me that’s what you need. Nic Cage’s character works great as-is. Beth Grant is a slight subversion of a small-town sheriff/surprise bad-ass character in a way that felt reminiscent of The Dead Don’t Die. The horny teens filled their role admirably. But a movie like this needs a great villain, and the animatronic creatures, while menacing and creepy at the beginning, become a little rote at the movie goes on.

Screenshot: Screen Media Films

Again, please don’t misunderstand: it’s fun to watch Nic Cage beat a person-sized demon-stuffed ostrich to death. But I think Willy’s Wonderland could have gone from, “fun thing to watch with friends in a possibly altered state” to “actual cult classic” if the characters had been given more individual personalities and deeper motivations.

And having said all of that, I’ll end with a warning: you will absolutely get the Willy’s Wonderland “It’s Your Birthday” song stuck in your head forever if you watch this thing.

…and now Leah Schnelbach wants Taco Bell. DAMMIT. Come battle animatronics with them on Twitter!

 

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