For most actors, the switch to straight-to-VOD still feels like a step down. Even now, there’s something about the big screen that seems to promise a sort of immortality not guaranteed by the vagaries of streaming service algorithms.
Not so with Nicolas Cage, for whom acting seems to be an endearing mix of day-job professionalism and performative insanity.
He’s exactly the sort of actor, indeed the only actor, you can imagine anchoring a movie like Willy’s Wonderland.
After his car receives a quadruple blowout courtesy of a stolen spike strip, The Janitor (Nicolas Cage) mutely accepts a deal from motormouth restauranteur Tex Macado (a white-suited, cigar-chomping Ric Reitz; M. C. Gainey by way of Powers Boothe) for a night’s clean-up work in return for the necessary funds to fix his ride.
As you might expect from with all due respect, a blatant ripoff of Five Nights at Freddy’s, our nameless, silent protagonist must survive a night at a Chuck E. Cheese-style family restaurant populated by murderous animatronic mascots. As we quickly discover, though, the creatures have more to worry about from him.
Diligently cleaning up the premises, with regular breaks to plug energy drinks and play pinball, The Janitor carries out his duties with the same mechanical affect, whether its scrubbing graffiti or dispatching the mascots one by one.1 Then there’s a gang of teenagers, led by the industrious Liv (Emily Tosta), determined to burn the eponymous establishment to the ground.
Director Kevin Lewis leads into the cheesiness of the premise, with plenty of blood splatter and exaggerated title shots. His use of lens flare during some of Cage’s rampages recalls his outing in 2018’s Mandy. Even the lack of polish to some of the effects could charitably be considered a homage to the video-game cut-scenes of its social material.
The creature designs of Willy and his cadre are both creepy, conceivably cuddly, and just the right level of cheap; from Arty the Alligator clambering through the vents, or Siren Sara, an offbrand Tinker Bell, bouncing around an artificial woodland glade like a hopped-up kid at a school disco.
However, G.O. Parson’s script loses this charming matter-of-factness by introducing too many new elements in the film’s final reaches, like the complicity of local law enforcement (crabbiness incarnate Beth Grant plays the small-town Sheriff) or the revelation of SPOILER;2 all of which seems designed to address the plot hole of how Willy’s Wonderland can continue to act as a deathtrap for passers-through.
Which seems especially surplus to requirement when so many of its characters make such illogical decisions. Cage brings a zen playfulness to his portrayal of a man-automaton, but the film surrounding him isn’t quite gonzo enough to see it through these pitfalls unscathed.
Still, if you’ve ever wanted to see Nicolas Cage curb-stomp a costumed critter, this is to my knowledge the only opportunity in his filmography. And if this particular Cage flick isn’t for you, give it a couple of weeks. Between this, and Jiu Jitsu, the upcoming Prisoners of the Ghostland, you’ll definitely find something sufficiently outré.
Willy’s Wonderland is now available on Video On Demand.