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Movie Review: Sadly, it’s a surprise-free “WILLY’S WONDERLAND”

Monday, February 15, 2021 | Reviews


Starring Nicolas Cage, Emily Tosta and Beth Grant
Directed by Kevin Lewis
Written by G.O. Parsons
Screen Media Films

The opening shots of WILLY’S WONDERLAND, with Nicolas Cage charging down backwoods roads in a black Camaro, raise fond memories of DRIVE ANGRY, which remains the gold standard of out-of-control Cage-starring horror. Then his tires get blown out, and he becomes trapped in something resembling an Asylum mockbuster of a FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S movie yet to go into production.

Sunglassed and leather-jacketed, Cage plays a character billed only as “The Janitor,” because that’s the job he takes at the titular kids’ attraction, and because he has no dialogue during which he might formally introduce himself. He accepts the assignment to clean up Willy’s Wonderland, a rundown family-fun center located in the equally rundown town of Hayesville, in trade for repairs to his car. The outside of this establishment is festooned with graffiti like “Kid Killers” and “Gateway to Hell,” so it shouldn’t really surprise him when the animatronic oversized animals inside come to life and try to kill him. And in fact, he registers very little surprise when Ozzie Ostrich announces, “I’m gonna feast on your face!” and tries to do just that. He beats the life out of Ozzie, and then duct-tapes a facial wound and goes back to his work like the attack was no big deal, and that’s in the first 20 minutes and, unfortunately, sets the tone for the rest of WILLY’S WONDERLAND.

The idea of Cage, our reigning screen King of Bizarro, taking on a building full of demonically infused children’s characters would seem to be a foolproof one. Yet director Kevin Lewis and scripter G.O. Parsons make a grave miscalculation with The Janitor. The idea is clearly supposed to be that he’s so cool and bad-ass that he’s unruffled by the attack of the oversized action figures, but after that joke gets played with Ozzie, it’s repeated again and again, with no escalation of stakes and no suspense, because it’s clear The Janitor will survive to the film’s end. He’s given no character traits other than guzzling an energy drink every time his digital watch beeps, another running gag that quickly wears out its welcome. And because he exhibits no reactions to his bizarre situation, treating the creature assaults like distractions at best, there’s nothing to hang onto or be amused by. If he doesn’t feel any fear from these monsters or take any joy in triumphing over them, how can we?

The supporting characters aren’t much help. While The Janitor is having his repetitive adventures inside Willy’s Wonderland, teenage Liv (Emily Tosta) arrives with a group of friends to burn the place down. When she discovers someone’s there, Liv insists they go inside to rescue The Janitor, who, of course, doesn’t need rescuing. These dumb, colorless youths are, of course, only on hand to serve as cannon fodder, including the couple who think it’s a good idea to have sex (with their clothes on) in the ironically named “Super Happy Fun Room.” Then there’s the local sheriff (Beth Grant) and the good ol’ boy owner of Willy’s Wonderland (Ric Reitz), whose roles play out exactly as you expect them to. There is, in fact, not a surprising twist or clever reversal anywhere in the film, though there is quite a bit of exposition about the place’s generic satanic backstory, and attempts to explain why, even though many dozens of people have been killed or gone missing there for over 20 years, no major authorities or military have attempted to demolish Willy’s Wonderland before.

There are saving graces in Molly Coffee’s great dingy/tacky production design (any movie that fetishizes a vintage pinball machine can’t be all bad), the creature effects designed and supervised by Kenneth J. Hall and the makeup effects by SOTA F/X’s Roy Knyrim and Cindy Miller-Knyrim. Lead beastie Willy the giant weasel and his cohorts look the part and are convincingly brought to physical life; it’s just a shame that not much is done to differentiate them personality-wise. The sole exception is when a critter approaches one teen claiming to be inhabited by a trapped, innocent soul instead of a demonic one. (SPOILER ALERT: It’s lying.) All the aggressive camerawork and spurting blood can’t make up for the sorely missing imagination and inspiration, right up to the final sequence that leans on a classic rock song playing over a softball conclusion. You expect more eccentricity from a movie whose many executive producers include everyone from Mark Damon to Adam Rifkin; one of the producers and also the 2nd-unit director was Grant Cramer, star of KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE, which only reminds that any 10 minutes of that kindertrauma klassic wipe the floor with this flick.