Director: Kevin Lewis
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Beth Grant, Emily Tosta
Nicolas Cage has comfortably settled into a mid-career groove of plentiful straight-to-VOD productions that tilt toward his strengths in manifesting either world-weary boredom or wide-eyed mania. Kevin Lewis is the latest director to be blessed with the actor’s largess, and this cheap but cheerful horror picture somehow manages to encourage both aspects of Cage – who doesn’t utter a single word throughout – permanently appearing so over it. But considering the circumstances, that’s exactly the joke.
Lewis and screenwriter G.O. Parsons are the latest in the long lineage of horror movie creatives to milk the fairground for its inherently macabre potential. The exaggerated rictus grin of enforced Fun. The tarnished wholesomeness of Disneyland. Here it’s woven into the oddball tight-knit communities that make up small towns. Identikit rural America.
Cage leans into a comically macho persona as ‘The Janitor’; a mute (by choice?) drifter who takes an overnight job cleaning up the titular venue for shady owner Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz). In a manner not dissimilar to that one episode of The Simpsons where they go to Itchy & Scratchy Land, this Janitor soon discovers that the cute and fuzzy animatronic creatures populating Willy’s Wonderland have a nasty habit of running amok. We in the audience get there before him, of course, thanks to a suitably chaotic cold open.
So Cage is, effectively, The Terminator armed with a bottle of CIF Anti-Bac & Shine. That edge softens a little once Macadoo gets him into a staff t-shirt and our Janitor loses his Schwarzenegger sunglasses, but watching Cage passively dispatch a variety of giant bug-eyed mascots is… oddly satisfying. And those itching for Willy’s Wonderland to get right down to it needn’t wait long. This is a nippy little beast. You won’t be halfway through your first beer before Cage is beating the hell out of a giant sassy ostrich.
Just as these kind of cutesy tucked-away independent theme parks feel strangely old-world, so the film nods continuously toward the kind of wink-wink ’80s/’90s nostalgia that, frankly, felt tired around the time of Turbo Kid. Still, if watching Cage pulverise a puffy crocodile appeases our collective lust for meaningless, violent mania, its also strangely pleasing just watching him wipe down an old pinball machine. He’s a good Janitor!
While Cage is Gaffer-taping his way through his own private Five Nights At Freddy’s, a gaggle of teenagers on the peripheries gather to torch the place. Parsons’ script is suitably zesty, gifting these supporting players a hefty amount of self-aware and snappy dialogue. The kind written for its inclusion on an imdb Quotes page. Their ringleader, Liv (Emily Tosta), isn’t about to burn a guy alive, so she sneaks her way in through the site’s customarily-gigantic ventilation system. She also allows for an extensive slab of exposition, which draws closest comparison – semi-surprisingly – to the lore at the heart of the Child’s Play franchise.
Later, cult character actor Beth Grant gets acerbic on the sidelines as the town’s local sheriff, and brings even more explanatory storytelling to the table. The more the rest of the cast speak, the more refreshing Cage’s silence feels. The remainder of the ‘teens’ adhere closely to slasher movie stereotypes. There’s even a horny couple destined for death because of their irrepressible promiscuity. Elsewhere, Émoi’s synthy score does the usual John Carpenter-aping bit.
Eager to memeify itself in a way that skirts close to risible, Willy’s Wonderland largely fulfills its own mandate and on those terms is a resounding success. Its fun, trashy, campy – all the things it wants to be. It’s also disposable as they come. A one-and-done experience. Coming in at under 90 minutes, it at least has the gusto to make the trip difficult to reproach. As suggested, with a few beers is the best way to meet this one head-on. A colourful and idiotic oddity that tilts fondly toward the heyday of Troma. Take that as you will.