Willy’s Wonderland is available to rent or buy.
The horror genre has become more thoughtful and socially conscious over the past decade. The rise of Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, and Jennifer Kent has signalled a shift away from paranormal jump scares and torture porn, creating a welcome imbalance in the shared 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 very familiar story, thanks to the internet sensation Five Nights at Freddy’s. Nick Cage (The Janitor) is tasked with cleaning up 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.
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 other than the unique character of Nick Cage. Every time he’s in a new film, it expands 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 his presence to speak for itself. His arrival echoes the iconography of the lone drifter, merely passing through the film’s structure and becoming stuck. It’s evident that The Janitor has no interest in the town’s lore, nor Willy’s, or even his role in events – he rejects it all to acquire what he needs before leaving.
Willy’s Wonderland introduces the traditional horror foil to The Janitor’s postmodern presence through a gang of teenagers led by Liv (Emily Tosta.) Here the teenage stereotypes housed within the gang are 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 emphasised to the level of caricature, each celebrating the traditional archetypes found in horror; the nerd, the oversexed couple, the idiot, and the final girl. The result is a fun pastiche of horror tropes and a love letter to its history.
The animatronics themselves are suitably unnerving; The Siren is particularly terrifying – her animatronic head and human body a perverse hybrid of demonic-human movement. When The Janitor comes face-to-face with the animatronics, Lewis and Parsons take our expectations and shred them – it’s brutal, with pure Cageian anarchy. Willy’s Wonderland takes the traditional imbalance of power – monster vs human and plays with it to mesmerising effect as Cage barely breaks a sweat while handing out decapitations and mutilations soaked in violent spurts of oil. It’s Cage at his unhinged best, and watching him devour demons with his bare hands is horrifically brilliant.
Willy’s Wonderland manages to have some genuine unexpected moments, including a delightfully absurd demonic weasel’s birthday song that seduces us just as a giant knight skewers a teen like a human shish-kebab. Willy’s Wonderland makes a case for a new brand of pulpy and camp horror that will satisfy horror fans, old and new.