Nicolas Cage’s career shifted to a straight-to-DVD twilight around the time of Drive Angry (2011), where he’s become prolific in order to pay off debts after squandering his $150M fortune. His last decade of movies have been mostly junk undeserving of a theatrical release, but there are occasionally indie gems (Mom and Dad, Mandy, Color Out of Space), plus zanier projects that only seem to get made because his name still carries weight (Primal, Jiu Jitsu).
Willy’s Wonderland is firmly in the latter camp, as Cage was drawn to the project after stumbling upon the screenplay on the Blood List; a horror-focused version of the famous Black List, championing good unproduced scripts. It’s where Maggie (2011) and Bird Box (2014) were discovered. A short four-minute film had already been made based on this idea in 2016, Wally’s Wonderland, directed by its screenwriter G.O Parsons, but he was displeased with the end-result. A few clips have since found their way online.
Cage plays a silent drifter, credited only as The Janitor, whose muscle car blows out its tyres while driving through the remote town of Hayesville, Nevada. A local mechanic agrees to fix his wheels for $1,000, but when the penniless Janitor can’t pay the bill, he’s introduced to Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz), owner of a condemned family entertainment centre called Willy’s Wonderland. If the Janitor can clean up the rundown property overnight, to help prepare for its grand re-opening, he’ll earn back his beloved car. The deal is struck, but the Janitor later becomes aware that Wonderland’s eight animatronic characters seem to be alive, after first being attacked by a large furry ostrich while taking a break. Can the taciturn Janitor survive the night in order to get out of town with his life?
It’s easy to see why this was a popular unmade script, and why a famously eccentric actor like Cage would want to bring it to life by signing on to star. The problem is that the low budget can’t live up to the movie that plays in your head when you hear about it, mostly because it would be more entertaining if Willy’s Wonderland was a large-scale theme park riffing on Disneyland. But it’s instead a modest rundown building, more like a glorified family restaurant with a couple of open-plan rooms where mechanical animals once played musical instruments on a stage.
Cage’s presence may have ensured this made it into production, but his casting is unexpectedly problematic too. His character has absolutely no dialogue throughout, which severely restricts what Cage is able to bring to proceedings. It’s a purely physical performance that’s fun enough at times, with Cage deliriously punching and kicking furry characters with snapped mop handles and whatnot, or dancing around bizarrely while playing pinball, but without the Janitor uttering a single word this performance grows tiresome.
We needed a few characteristically bonkers line readings from Cage, or at least a handful of one-liners to break the monotony, but instead have to make do with smirks and scowls. There’s certainly comedy value in a mute Janitor who’s insanely committed to holding up his end of a bargain (even once it becomes clear he’s been fed to figurative lions), as he treats every murderous attack like an annoying distraction from his cleaning job (calmly pulling on a new T-shift after every bloody encounter), but it also means the threat level stays disappointing low.
There’s simply not enough scares from a situation where the hero of the story is never surprised or frightened by anything happening. This is one reason a gang of local kids, led by Liv Hawthorne (Emily Tosta), are introduced about halfway through, because they at least act plausibly to the notion of Satan worshippers whose souls have been transferred into cuddly mascots. But these teens are little more than cannon fodder, as there’s little uncertainty over whether or not the Janitor’s going to make it out alive. And that means the entire movie almost grinds to a halt because there’s no underlying tension and everything’s on a predictable path.
It’s certainly a challenge to make Willy’s Wonderland more scary than comical, as it can’t help but be silly on the face of it. Director Kevin Lewis does an admirable job considering the low $5M budget, making the fights look effective instead of totally ridiculous, and there are a few moments when the design of Willy and his googly-eyed friends look imposing. But it’s notable that the creepiest animatronic character is the one who looks most like a human girl, with razor-sharp teeth and ballerina legs. It’s almost impossible to find a tall weasel, alligator, turtle, and knight all that terrifying. Maybe if you’re 8 years old it would work, but that’s not exactly the target audience here!
Willy’s Wonderland isn’t without some entertainment value. It’s a fair entry in the low-budget comedy-horror genre, especially in terms of how word-of-mouth will drive people its way to see this crazy premise unfold for themselves. The film’s signature “It’s Your Birthday” melody also rivals the “Silver Shamrock” commercial from Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) in terms of its ear-worm nature.
I just wish the script was scarier and funnier, and it was a colossal mistake to have Cage play a character who doesn’t utter a single word. He also looks distracting like malnourished David Gest here. If the Janitor has been played by a more charismatic Bruce Campbell type, with a big personality that could compensate for the movie’s creative failings elsewhere (maybe even commenting on the ridiculousness of everything), I can imagine that working better. It just becomes a little one-note and repetitive with Cage being intentionally disinterested, as the character’s ironically not human enough to care about.
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USA | 2021 | 88 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Kevin Lewis.
writer: G.O Parsons.
starring: Nicolas Cage, Emily Tosta, Ric Reitz, Chris Warner, Kai Kadlec, Christian Delgrosso, Caylee Cowan, Terayle Hill, Jonathan Mercedes, David Sheftell & Beth Grant.