Willy’s Wonderland is available now on all major digital platforms through Signature Entertainment.
The Horror genre has developed into a more thoughtful and socially-conscious place over the past decade. The rise of Ari Aster, Jordan Peele and Jennifer Kent signalling a shift away from paranormal jump scares and torture porn. In turn, creating a welcome imbalance in the public vision of the Horror genre. Willy’s Wonderland presents a very appealing alternative to mine – the self-reflexive pulpy horror.
Directed by Kevin Lewis, from a script by G.O. Parsons, Willy’s Wonderland follows a story very familiar to us; thanks to the internet sensation Five Nights at Freddy’s. Here, Nick Cage (The Janitor), is tasked with the clean-up of an abandoned children’s play centre. His only company some remarkably unsettling animatronics. However, what begins as a simple cleaning job soon turns into ‘Cage’ against the animatronics. Much of the visuals seem to acknowledge the groundwork of Five Nights at Freddy’s. The opening font and ambient sound similar in style; highlighting Lewis’ awareness of the precedent the ‘Five Nights’ set. It’s a fun nod that provides an insight into Lewis’ directorial decisions. For example, instead of pretending to be unaware of Five Nights At Freddy’s, he ensures a subtle homage.
Nicolas Cage is the epitome of insanity in Willy’s Wonderland. In fact, he has cultivated such a specific persona for himself, that it is difficult to see him as anything else than the unique character of ‘Nick Cage.’ Every time he’s in a new film, it just seems to expand the ‘Crazy Cage Cinematic Universe’, and Willy’s Wonderland is no different. Lewis uses this to the film’s advantage, as Cage is both nameless and voiceless, allowing the rage of Cage’s presence to speak for itself.
His arrival beckons the iconography of the lone drifter, merely passing through the film’s structure and happening to become stuck; it’s evident The Janitor has no interest in the lore of the town, nor Willy’s itself, or even his role in the events of the film – he rejects it all in a hilariously banal simplicity, in the pursuit of simply acquiring what he needs before leaving.
It’s a strangely awesome move in the script to revolve your film around a complete non-character, instead of relying heavily on the unique character the actor themselves holds, especially in such a pulpy context; because it works perfectly.
Willy’s Wonderland introduces the traditional horror foil to Cage’s Janitor’s postmodern presence through a gang of teenagers, led by Liv (Emily Tosta.) Liv has a connection to the history of Willy’s Wonderland, one that allowed for a complexity and conflict that genuinely surprised me. Still, I have no intention of creating spoilers in this regard. However, the teenage stereotypes housed within the gang is a reminder of how Willy’s Wonderland could have looked without Cage; a conventional horror routed in the 1970s and 1980s. The characters’ stereotypes are emphasized to the level of caricature, providing a pulpy cast of entertaining characters to follow. Each one a celebration of the traditional archetypes found in horror; the nerd, the oversexed couple, the idiot, and the final girl.
Willy’s Wonderland combs over the horror genre’s aesthetic history, finding different avenues to celebrate its growth. For example, while we have a traditional gaggle of archetypes, the editing and colour grading reflects a mid-2000s aesthetic; enhancing its kitschy concept. This fun self-reflexive tone is a delightful change to the potentially schlocky mess the movie could have fallen victim to. It’s clear that Lewis and Parsons are big fans of the genre, and horror fans who know their history will love the ride the pair take them on; a fun pastiche of horror through the decades. And a love letter to the dusty tropes of horror; brushing them off and giving them a satirical coat of paint.
The animatronics themselves are suitably unnerving; The Siren is particularly terrifying for the uncanny valley effect she produces – through a combination of practical effects; the CG alongside her animatronic head and human body allowing for a perverse hybrid of demonic-human movement that stays in your head. The colourful cast of murderous automatons has its own unique styles and backstories, and appreciative addition to the world. When The Janitor comes face-to-face with the animatronics, Lewis and Parsons take our expectations and shred them – it’s brutal, with a pure Cageian anarchy annihilating them one after the other, with little question or thought. It’s an upending of the seemingly malevolent and powerful demonic nature we have come to expect with this type of monster and firmly declares that Cage is who we should truly fear.
Willy’s Wonderland takes the traditional imbalance of power – monster vs human and plays with it to mesmerizing effect. While the horrific action finds a distinct voice in Nicolas Cage’s performance. Here, he is not only equal to the animatronics but also more powerful. His character barely breaking a sweat while handing out decapitations, mutilations and tearing fur from shells whilst soaked in violent spurts of oil. It’s Cage at his unhinged best, and it’s horrifically brilliant to watch him devour demons with his bare hands.
Despite the clear pastiche and reflections on the history of horror and the postmodern satire through Cage’s upending presence. Willy’s Wonderland still manages to have some genuine unexpected moments; building each one from humorous excess rather than jumpscare horror. It’s delightfully absurd as we’re seduced by a talking demonic weasel’s birthday song, distracting us from a giant knight skewering a teen like a human shish-kebab. Meanwhile, there are also some clever and interesting lore-building dynamics within the backstory. And while this creates one flashback too many—the puzzle pieces we’re given fit together to make for a compelling backstory that feels strangely authentic.
From the brutality of Cage’s animatronic decimations to the menagerie of cliches and tropes that are deliberately used to emphasize a self-aware strategy. Willy’s Wonderland makes a case for a new brand of horror with a pulpy and delightfully camp reflexivity that will satisfy horror fans old and new, while at the same time, ensuring viewers keep coming back to relive the fun.
You can read more of the latest Film Reviews here