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Cinema was not expressly invented so Nicolas Cage could urinal-stomp an animatronic gorilla to death in a children’s restaurant restroom, and yet here is Willy’s Wonderland providing that very unforgettable sight, heretofore unseen in the history of the medium. That may be this gleefully silly affair’s R-rated highlight, but it’s far from its only pleasurable moment, as director Kevin Lewis and screenwriter G.O. Parsons deliver a Five Nights at Freddy’s-inspired Western-horror B-movie whose tongue is planted so firmly in its cheek, it’s no wonder its star doesn’t ever get a word out of his mouth.
That’s right—in Willy’s Wonderland (on VOD Feb. 12), Cage plays a perpetually silent man with no name (he’s credited as The Janitor) who rides into the remote rural enclave of Hayesville in his roaring Chevy Camaro steed. When he gets a flat tire courtesy of a spike strip lying suspiciously in the middle of the road, he patiently waits by his car until a tow truck operated by Jed (Chris Warner) offers him a lift to a garage, where he’s informed that repairs will cost a cool $1,000 in cash. Since the Janitor doesn’t have that sort of money on him, and the ATM is broken, Jed offers him a seemingly innocuous means of repaying his debt: spend the night cleaning Tex’s (Ric Reitz) gone-to-seed Willy’s Wonderland, which used to be a prime kids’ birthday party spot but is now an abandoned, ramshackle dump decorated with spray-painted messages like “Kid Killers” and “Gateway to Hell.”
With nothing but a series of severe stares (which director Lewis often enhances with oh-so-intense-and-momentous zooms into close-up), the Janitor agrees to this bargain. Inside Willy’s Wonderland, he’s greeted by a collection of animatronic figures on the main stage: Willy the Weasel (Jiri Stanek), Arty the Alligator (Chris Bradley), Cammy the Chameleon (Taylor Towery), Gus the Gorilla (Billy Bussey), Ozzie the Ostrich (B.J. Guyer), Knighty Knight (Duke Jackson), and Siren Sara (Jessica Graves Davis). They’re a grotesquely overgrown bunch that, like their establishment, resemble warped versions of Chuck E. Cheese, and shortly after Cage’s loner assumes his duties, he begins suspecting that these unreal creatures are watching him and moving around behind his back. Nonetheless, heeding Tex’s advice that he should take regular work breaks, the Janitor drops everything when his watch alarm sounds, heading to the kitchen to down cans of Punch cola while dusting off—and then playing—a vintage Willy’s Wonderland pinball machine.
Willy’s Wonderland doesn’t make audiences wait too long before having the Janitor show off his impressive fighting skills against an attacking Ozzie the Ostrich—a scuffle that culminates with the Janitor ripping out the bird’s spinal column. This excessive violence is juxtaposed with the Janitor drolly wiping Ozzie’s robo-blood off his face and then changing into a fresh Willy’s Wonderland T-shirt, thereby firmly establishing the proceedings’ absurdist humor. The Janitor is Cage’s very own Clint Eastwood-style desperado, and a late shot of the hero standing off against Willy—the two of them perched at opposite ends of the widescreen frame—further underscores director Lewis’ cheeky homage to Sergio Leone. That Punch cola cans read “A fistful of caffeine to your kisser,” and the villainous Tex wears a ten-gallon hat and chomps on a cigar, are just icing on the homage-y cake.
Willy’s Wonderland also embraces its horror roots, primarily via the introduction of local teenager Liv (Emily Tosta), who’s committed to torching Willy’s Wonderland but is temporarily thwarted by her legal guardian, Sheriff Lund (Beth Grant). Eventually, Liv and her friends—all of them clichéd types, from the love interest (Kai Kadlec) and the blonde sexpot (Caylee Cowan) to the loudmouth alpha male (Terayle Hill) and the nerd (Jonathan Mercedes)—wind up inside the restaurant, trying to help the Janitor fell his monstrous mecha-adversaries, who stalk the venue’s playrooms (arcade, dining area, jungle gym) like fiends out of a slasher film. It’ll come as no surprise that one couple abandons their comrades to go have sex (and suffer greatly for it), nor that when Liv informs the Janitor about Willy’s Wonderland’s horrific backstory, the explanation for all this madness is a riff on Child’s Play.
Without uttering a single word—the full extent of his vocal performance involves grunts—Cage proves consistently hilarious and magnetic, embodying the Janitor as a mysterious, quasi-mythical nomad warrior with a passion for brutally slaughtering his enemies. Wielding a broken mop handle as a martial-arts weapon, breaking necks with his thighs, and decapitating villains with enormous swords, he’s the sort of he-man whose unstoppable might is cast as a wink-wink joke. So too is his diligent adherence to his routine of cleaning, taking soda-and-pinball breaks, slaying animatronic beasts, and changing his shirt—a mechanized sequence of events that goofily cast him as a kindred spirit to his robotic rivals.
Willy’s Wonderland’s generic supporting characters are a drastic step down from Cage’s protagonist, only serving to lend the story some stock scenes of murder and mayhem that are punctuated by the Janitor doling out a gruesome finishing move. Lewis doesn’t stray from his basic narrative template, and though his exaggerated direction sets a suitably playful tone, it also quickly wears out its welcome, especially by the fifteenth wildly rotating shot around an actor, shaky-cam skirmish, or pointless canted angle. Monotony may be built into the film’s fundamental conceit (and action), but that doesn’t make it any less welcome.
Better are those instances when Cage and the material are in complete wackadoo harmony, such as a late game of pinball that finds the Janitor shimmying, bouncing, and outright voguing in delight as he racks up a high score to the tune of a synth-heavy ‘80s “Willy’s Wonderland” theme song. At times like that, Willy’s Wonderland takes full advantage of its headliner’s preternatural charisma, and channels it into something uniquely bizarre and comical. The end result isn’t one of the actor’s genuine classics—or, for that matter, even one of his most out-there efforts, given the peerless lunacy of his oeuvre. But it ably fulfills its promise as a bonkers saga about Nicolas Cage battling satanically-possessed fantasy robots in a funhouse restaurant, and really, that’s no small accomplishment.