Sunday, April 14, 2024

‘Willy’s Wonderland’ Needs More Cage

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Sometimes you hear the premise of a movie and you become interested. Other times all you need to hear is who is staring in the movie to peak your curiosity. But the sweet spot is a movie that does both. Sadly, Willy’s Wonderland drops the ball. 

Kevin Lewis lucked out in having an absolute goldmine of an idea thanks to G.O. Parson’s script. Take the popular game Five Night at Freddy’s and make a movie out of it without having to pay the copyright fee. Even better get the iconoclastic and enigmatic Hollywood super-legend Nic Cage to star in it, sit back, and let the money roll in. 

To be fair to Lewis and Parson, Willy’s Wonderland isn’t just a premise inspired by a popular video game. The duo pulls from other genres and tropes to try and make a gore-infused tongue-in-cheek horror film on a less than a shoestring budget.

Cage is predictably brilliant as the stranger in town. A man with no name or any dialogue, Cage’s character exudes an over the top machismo. From the way, he races his sports car down the country road to how he dramatically tears off his sunglasses merely to stare before walking off. He is more archetype than character; for what Cage is doing for whole stretches of Willy’s Wonderland it works.

He’s the type of actor who can turn in a brilliantly layered performance filled with humanity and grace. But Cage is also aware enough to understand when a director merely wants him to like “Nic Cage”. Sometimes it works and sometimes he doesn’t but rarely has anyone left a Nic Cage movie saying he was phoning it in. Granted many have left a Nic Cage movie and wondered what the heck anyone was thinking but that’s neither here nor there.

After running over some road spikes Cage’s character is stranded in the tiny town of Hayesville. The tow truck driver, Jed (Chris Warner) says he can fix it but he can only take cash. There’s no atm or internet in Hayesville and he doesn’t take plastic. Thankfully, Jed knows a way he can make some cash. It seems a local family restaurant and arcade, think Showbiz Pizza or Chuck-E-Cheez, needs an overnight Janitor. The owner Tex Macado (Ric Reitz) is offering to pay for everything. The Stranger need only to spend the night in his establishment and clean it up.

The animatronic characters inside soon come to life and try to kill the Janitor. Cage’s Janitor is not only unphased but this but it appears he can also handle himself in a fight. He begins dispatching the evil robots with relative ease. 

Parson’s script is a mixed bag. There are glimmers of intelligence such as the way that Jed the tow truck driver rambles on, dropping pearls of wisdom such as, “You know what folks consider funny; just ruin a man’s damn day.” Or how Tex reminds the Janitor to take his breaks resulting in Janitor’s watch alarm going off just before a fight or just after, and him leaving and going off to play pinball while gulping down grape-flavored soda like Popeye gulps spinach. 

But the rest of the script is a black hole of fun. Parson has neglected to give any of his characters anything more than a one-note personality. Some of these characters such as Tex and Jed are written and played so broadly they are fine. Jed, for instance, chews a half-eaten slim-jim as if it’s an old ratty half-chewed cigar. But others such as Sheriff Eloise (Beth Grant) or Liv (Emily Tosta) a young teenager hellbent on burning down Willy’s Wonderland to stop the evil robots from killing any more innocent bystanders, drag the film down.

Worse, Liv has a gang of friends Evan (David Sheftell), Chris (Kai Kadlec), Kathy (Caylee Cowan), Dan (Jonathan Mercedes), and Bob (Terayle Hill) who all but grind the film to a screeching halt. They are not characters. They are potential corpses to pad the body count. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a big issue but we spend too much time with these characters who have no discerning personality and who do or say nothing of real interest, for it to be funny or satirical.

These characters are not funny, smart, and do not behave in a logic consistent from the previous scene. Liv is the Sheriff’s adopted daughter and once she is caught trying to burn Willy’s down she is handcuffed to a radiator in their trailer. Liv’s friends find her and rescue her. Then head to Willy’s with the plan to rescue the Janitor and burn the place down. Except, once they get to Willy’s, her friends try to burn the place down and have to be stopped and reminded of the plan.

Characters routinely have the same conversation over and over again and we must sit through all of their inane chatter. Meanwhile, Nic Cage is inside Willy’s kicking ass, cleaning up the mess, and saying nothing, and is just plain riveting. The middle third of the movie starts to drag on interminably as the cadre of disposable teenagers who are so obviously disposable teenagers drag the movie to a crawl.

It’s not just that these characters are dull but that they are inconsistent. They know all about the history of both the town and Willy’s. After falling through the roof inside of Willy’s, Bobby and Cathy sneak off to Willy’s Playroom. The pair begin to indulge in the favorite tradition of horror movies: the killing of teenagers having sex. 

But the problem is both the characters and the audience have the same information. We both know, by this point, that the former employees were child killers who offed themselves during a satanic ritualistic suicide and whose spirits now possess the animatronic children’s character. So, why would they go into the room where the ritual was held to engage in the world’s oldest reason for dying in the horror movies? 

More to the point why, when they see Arty the Alligator (Christopher Bradley) standing in the corner, do they question where he came from while continuing with the rumpy-pumpy? Had the movie had more fun with the characters all of this could be laughed off but it’s all so rote that it feels like a waste of time. 

We get it. Teenagers are horny and dumb. That Willy’s Wonderland has a whole scene specifically illustrating this merely feels like the movie belaboring the point.

Even Liv telling the Janitor the backstory about Willy’s, while he is on his break, feels pointless. We don’t need a reason for why these things are coming to life or even why they are killing people. The Janitor’s laconic disinterest matched my own as if we were both waiting for him to get back to beheading Knighty Knight (Duke Jackson). 

Of all the characters Liv is the least annoying but she is, alas, as foolish and brain-dead as the others. The others are bland and indistinguishable from one another. Cowan’s Kathy is the only standout. But only because she is the only other girl in the group. 

Cowan gets the raw end of the stick. She seems to be playing a character that neither Lewis nor Parson particularly cares for. Kathy is the “slutty” one, only she doesn’t feel like a trope so much as a parody of trope. She’s a middle-aged man’s idea of a hormonal teen. This could be why Cowan seems so uncomfortable in the role, or it could just be those ridiculous heels.

Lewis can’t seem to get a grip on the direction of the movie. Nic Cage as a nameless stranger who blows into town and is duped into spending a night with a cadre of children’s animatronic robots possessed by the spirits of the previous murderous employees should be a slam dunk. But it’s not. 

The beginning of the film is great fun. Likewise, the last leg of the film is a hoot as characters receive their needed comeuppance. But in between, there’s a whole lot of dead space that does little more than creating a sort of cinematic entropy. 

Willy’s Wonderland is an ugly looking film, sometimes intentionally and others not so. The lighting is dim and gives the film a grunge aesthetic. At times this enhances the low down and dirty feeling of the film. 

But Lewis knocks the leg from under David Newbert’s camerawork by giving him nothing to shoot. The creature designs range from clever and creepy to dull and bland. There are eight killer robots and like the teens, they kill they have zero personality. Newbert can craft some energy out of Cage’s Janitor and this is a large reason why the scenes with Cage are the best.

A great example would be the scene in the bathroom where the Janitor fights Gus Gorilla (Austin Perez). The flickering fluorescent lighting mixed with the sing-song banality of Gus Gorilla’s singing music makes the scene feel more sinister and skeezy. Especially as the Janitor uses a urinal to curb stomp the evil robot’s head.

There’s an odd synergy of everything going right when Cage is on the screen that deflates once the camera cuts away. Parson’s script hints at an underlying theme about how a town stood by and allowed itself to be controlled by a nameless evil once they discovered that fighting it was too difficult. But like the backstory, we get these moments in information dumps. The attempts to explain things only serve to bore us because we don’t care why any of this happening; only that it is.

Willy’s Wonderland gets bogged down in trying to create lore around the monsters and flesh out a cast of too many characters that do little distinguish themselves from one another. But amid all this dreck, shines the captivating performance of Nic Cage. He very nearly saves it all; but not quite.

Image courtesy of Screen Media Films

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