A silent lead. A gang of teenagers. A house of horrific animatronic monsters. With this trifecta, Willy’s Wonderland is either going to be the stuff of legends or nightmares. If you’re a fan of small budget horror films like Evil Dead (1981), then there’s no question how you’re going to feel because the G.O. Parsons-written Kevin Lewis-directed film feels as much an homage to streamlined horror of the past while being absolutely modern in its approach. With the whole world seemingly out of control, there’s nothing like a simple horror story for a little catharsis.
Driving through the outskirts of Hayesville, a man (Nicolas Cage) blows all four tires and needs a tow. It’s a simple fix that comes with a minor inconvenience: the repairs require cash and all the man has are cards. A proposition is then put forward for the man to help out local businessman Texas Macadoo (Ric Reitz) in exchange for the funds to cover the cost of repairs and labor. The task itself is simple: spend one night cleaning Macadoo’s decrepit child entertainment business Willy’s Wonderland. The job itself is easy enough — all the supplies for cleaning are provided, along with a change of shirt and break time snacks — but the longer the new janitor cleans, the more he can sense the eyes of the animatronics on him. Is it just his imagination or is something far more sinister lurking in the shadows?
Whether you’ve seen a trailer or not, there’s not much that can be spoiled with Willy’s Wonderland outside of who lives and how badly some die. As explained in the press notes, Willy’s is absolutely a horror flick in the vein of Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) or Evil Dead wherein a group of people are faced with an unusual situation and have to fight for their lives to survive. What truly separates Willy’s from all the others, though, what makes it truly unique and, in my opinion, totally memorable, is Cage’s janitor both in character design and in performance. The janitor never speaks a word, a gimmick that I thought was first due to the extremely talkative tow truck driver Jed Love (Chris Warner) who doesn’t stop long enough to let anyone get a word in, but it’s something that continues throughout. Outside of a few things the audience sees, a quick shot of dog tags hanging from a rearview mirror, for example, everything we get about the janitor is through his physical reactions. He’s driving a fast car with speed and intensity when we first meet him, chugs Punch soda by the case, dresses in black, and wears boots. From all estimations, he is not a man to be messed with. This is all confirmed when he goes toe-to-toe with the first animatronic, Ozzie the Ostrich, which he dispenses with quickly and silently. It’s at this moment that the audience realizes that Willy’s is not going to be the typical horror flick where the unsuspecting victim tries desperately to survive. Instead, what Parsons and Lewis give us is a horror comedy in the vein of Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010), where what we think is going to happen rarely does. This is where Cage himself brings an extra layer of excitement to the role due to his reputation for crazy characters. That aura of instability, of dubiousness, extends into the janitor and then into the narrative itself, allowing the script to go anywhere it wants however it wants. It. Is. Glorious.
Seriously, if you can’t have some fun with what, quite honestly, must have been inspired by real nightmares of the Chuck E. Cheese gang (or other childhood animatronic f(r)iends), then this movie isn’t going to be for you anyway. But for those of you who understand the inspiration, who’ve looked over at the lifeless eyes of Chuck, Jasper Jowls, and the rest of Munch’s Make Believe Band and been slightly unnerved at their endless stare from the shadows until the next time their “show” began, Willy’s will feel like a strange release as each member of Willy’s band is dispatched with extreme prejudice. Credit where credit’s due, the design of each character by creature designer Kenneth J. Hall (Puppet Master 5) wonderfully blends the mechanical with the biological, so that each animatronic moves and sounds as expected. You can hear the gears turning, the clicks of movement on tracks, as they speak. There’s also a reasonable amount of malleability, representative of plastic faces or, in the case of Siren Sara, a mascot head on a real body. This leads the illusion of animatronics fueled by spirits a little more credence and their ultimate ruin far more gratification. Hat tip to the stunt performers who made our childhood terrors manifest.
So you don’t think that Cage’s janitor is at the center of all this, in which the sole focus of the film would be survival (which really is up for debate), Parsons gives us a crew of teens to follow that are equal parts fodder for the horror machine and source of narrative answers. This small crew, led by Emily Tosta’s (Freeform’s Party of Five) Liv (I shit you not, that is her name) has their own plans for Willy’s which are a mixture of ending the murderous rampage of the creatures inside and adolescent boredom in small town America. Through Liv, specifically, the audience gets more information on what’s going on and the monsters inside Willy’s have someone to go after other than the janitor. Trigger warning for photosensitivity as at least one of the attacks goes down in a room with strobing lights. For all the questions Liv can’t answer, her guardian, Sherriff Lund (Beth Grant), fills in the rest. Lund is introduced early and comes in late, playing the part you’d expect from law enforcement in a horror film such as this one. Grant is fantastic, as always, offering complex characterization such as maternal matriarch, fierce protector, and moral compromise in the span of moments. Tosta not only handles her own with Grant, but with Cage as well, tasked with being the rebellious teen to one and the intended savior of the other. More than anything, though, Tosta’s Liv keeps Willy’s grounded as the only one with any real sense about her. Lund is willing to do the least to protect Hayesville, while the janitor doesn’t work on breaks, leaving Liv to do the heavy lifting in between. As the straight woman to everyone else’s amped characters, she gets some of the best reaction moments out of anyone.
Sometimes a movie comes along at just the right time and does exactly what it’s meant to do: carry you away on an adventure. Willy’s Wonderland offers that and nothing more. It’s not grounded in reality, it’s not focused on realism, it is completely and utterly an escape. Before watching Willy’s Wonderland, I was in the middle of an emotional crisis. Demoralized, somewhat defeated, and frustrated beyond belief. This 89-minute feast of maniacal mayhem took me away and had me giggling like an idiot at each vicious deconstruction of Willy’s gang. This is the magic of movies and Willy’s would only get better with a packed theater of similarly-minded individuals reveling in the madness. Thankfully, Willy’s Wonderland is available on VOD and digital so you can safely pack yourself and your socially-distanced friends together and enjoy the carnage in comfort.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital February 12th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.