Cinema Dispatch: Willy’s Wonderland

Willy’s Wonderland and all the images you see in this review are owned by Screen Media Films

Directed by Kevin Lewis

You know, Nicolas cage may not be in big Hollywood movies anymore but he’s got a decent eye for the VOD and Indie markets.  He’s worked with guys like Panos Cosmatos, he was in probably the best HP Lovecraft movie in I don’t know how long, and that Brian Taylor movie Parents was an absolute trip and frankly should have gotten much more attention than it did.  Now he’s starring in an unofficial Five Nights at Freddy’s movie which would otherwise looks like an Asylum knock off.  Say what you will about Cage, at least he hasn’t gotten to Carmen Electra, C Thomas Howell, and Danny Trejo levels yet!  Does Nicolas Cage prove once again prove his savviness at picking low budget projects, or was this just an easy paycheck for all involved?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with a mysterious stranger (Nicolas Cage) getting the tires on his car ripped apart on a random country road near a dead end country town.  How much of a dead end is this town?  They don’t just lack any sort of internet service here, they don’t even have the infrastructure to support ATMs which means that Cage can’t just pay for the tires; he has to do this the old fashioned way with a favor and a handshake.  The town Business Guy (Ric Reitz) offers to pay for Cage’s new tires if he spends the night cleaning his janky as heck pizza place called Willy’s Wonderland; a children’s pizzeria with a cast of animatronic characters that love nothing more than to sing their happy songs for the children.  Unfortunately the little pizza shop has a VERY sordid past but that’s about to change as our local Business Guy is hoping to fix it up and get it running again which is all going to start with a little bit of elbow grease and a lots of window cleaner!  Cage silently agrees and is locked inside for some reason, but he doesn’t mind because he’s got a job to do and a bag full of PUNCH COLA to keep him nice and hydrated!  All is not as it seems however as some local kids led by Liv Hawthorne (Emily Tosta) are trying to burn the place to the ground but decide to try and convince Cage to come out first before they do it.  And why would they want to do that?  Well if the creepy animatronics and shady deal with the Business Guy wasn’t enough of a clue, it turns out this place is haunted for some reason and that she has some very grisly experiences with the place, so turning it to ashes will bring some degree of closure for her.  Still, seems like a bad idea to just run into the pizzeria full of haunted and murderous robots no matter how fluffy their fur is and it turns into a fight for survival as the teens try to escape the death trap and Cage continues to clean up stains wherever he finds them!  Will the horrors of this place finally be put to bed with the help of our mysterious stranger?  What exactly is keeping this place standing all these years, and why is Business Guy so gung ho to reopen in the first place?  Will Nicolas Cage clean the floors so well that you could eat off of them!?

“Is there an ostrich behind me?”     “Yes.”     “Is he tracking in mud?”     “Uh… maybe?”     “I hate it when they do that…”

This is a movie with a HUGE problem and it just has no idea how to fix it.  They’ve got forty minutes of a solid Nic Cage performance with a tone and atmosphere that is goofy, sinister, and rather captivating (there’s something genuinely satisfying about watching him clean this place), but for whatever reason the filmmakers felt that wasn’t enough to carry a whole movie and so they had to fill the gaps in with something else instead of just more Nic Cage.  Sadly what they filled it with was absolute trite nonsense; the kind of Z-grade level horror writing, acting, and direction, that you only really see on straight to video knock offs like Mother Krampus and The Mummy Rebirth.  I guess it makes sense considering they’re preemptively knocking off a Five Nights at Freddy’s movie, but it’s disappointing to see the stark disparity in talent here between what we get in the Nicolas Cage scenes and what we get everywhere else leading to a movie that gives you the animatronic smashing action that you want but only if you’re willing to sit through the bad movie that’s around it.

Help us, Mr. Cage!  You’re our only hope!

There’s no question that Nicolas Cage can carry a movie, even one that is REALLY bad, and this is certainly no exception.  It’s not one of his BEST roles even on the cheesier side of the spectrum (it’s like if you took a lot of the personality and all of the motivation away from his character in Drive Angry) but it gets the job done and frankly the filmmakers were SO much more invested in the making of the movie whenever he’s on screen.  His scenes are better written, better staged, interestingly shot, and there’s some genuinely good camerawork to make sure you get all of Nicolas Cage’s good sides.  The fact that he doesn’t speak and that he finds himself in this ridiculous scenario where he has to spend the night in a haunted pizzeria definitely gives this a cheesy video game feel; not just Five Nights at Freddy’s but something like Viscera Cleanup Detail or even more esoteric fare like The Stanley Parable; something that engages you in a straightforward loop while slowly turn the screws and twisting the world as you progress further into it.  It’s an interesting setup and frankly I wish they had gone further with it and found some justification for audio logs or maybe just one or two characters showing up out nowhere instead of the cavalcade of paper cutouts that keep getting in the way of Cage’s performance. There’s no question that Nicolas Cage can carry a movie, even one that is REALLY bad, and this is certainly no exception.  It’s not one of his BEST roles even on the cheesier side of the spectrum (it’s like if you took a lot of the personality and all of the motivation away from his character in Drive Angry) but it gets the job done and frankly the filmmakers were SO much more invested in the making of the movie whenever he’s on screen.  His scenes are better written, better staged, interestingly shot, and there’s some genuinely good camerawork to make sure you get all of Nicolas Cage’s good sides.  The fact that he doesn’t speak and that he finds himself in this ridiculous scenario where he has to spend the night in a haunted pizzeria definitely gives this a cheesy video game feel; not just Five Nights at Freddy’s but something like Viscera Cleanup Detail or even more esoteric fare like The Stanley Parable; something that engages you in a straightforward loop while slowly turn the screws and twisting the world as you progress further into it.  It’s an interesting setup and frankly I wish they had gone further with it and found some justification for audio logs or maybe just one or two characters showing up out nowhere instead of the cavalcade of paper cutouts that keep getting in the way of Cage’s performance.

“I’m here to clean toilets, and chew bubblegum; and I’m all out of toilet brushes, so this is gonna be rough…”

Speaking of the characters, boy is the acting bad here.  I don’t want to be too harsh on this point specifically because of just how low budget and independent the production was (I’m guessing Cage got more money than everyone else in the cast combined), so I’ll focus more on the writing than the individual performances which aren’t GOOD but get that small pass from me.  The teenagers that end up crashing the Wonderland Party are all just one dimensional caricatures that don’t have semblance of an internal life outside of the confines of the script.  More than anything else, they’re actions are just inexplicable with no one making any sort of rational decision and showing even the barest sense of a self-preservation.  Perfunctory sex scenes in horror movies are hardly new, but the one in this movie (which is extra skeevy considering how young the characters are supposed to be) is an interminable slog to get through because it makes absolutely no sense for these characters to be doing it; nor does it provide any sort of titillation if that’s what they were going for.  Why are they doing it then?  Because the filmmakers were too lazy to think of anything else for them to do I guess which is the fate of almost every single character in this movie aside from the Cage Man himself.  The non-teenager characters fare a BIT better as they are given at least a bit of life and personality as sketchy southern folk and their scenes are kept brief enough that they don’t end up overstaying their welcome, and I’ll give them credit for the animatronic characters as well.  Most of them have no personality and are just there to get destroyed, but at least two (the ones who are women) have some dialogue and the frog has an OKAY scene where she tricks someone in a subversion of the RESTLESS SOUL trope.  I was kind of hoping that Willy would act as some sort of leader and that the animatronics would get some screen time to themselves instead of just showing up to kill or get killed, but they definitely add some fun to this movie; certainly more so than any of the supporting cast.

“Blah, blah, blah, robots!  Blah, blah, blah murder!”     “Blah, blah, blah?”     “BLAH!”

The bad writing extends to the plot and the pacing as well which tries to weave a convoluted conspiracy narrative around this haunted pizza place when IT’S A HAUNTED PIZZA PLACE would have done just nicely.  Well I say “weave” but they don’t even try to integrate the backstory of Willy’s Wonderland in any creative of particularly competent way as the movie stops DEAD IN ITS TRACKS for a ten minutes to have the main teenage character just word vomit the very silly history of this place that doesn’t make any sort of sense and frankly isn’t the least bit needed to justify the story.  I’ll temper my criticism and say that the backstory is at least cheesy enough that it could have worked in a different context, but the fact that the whole emotional stakes of the movie hinges around the lead teenager’s traumatized past with this place and the fact that the movie just plops us down and gives it all to us in one go definitely tried my patience and made me rather unwilling to meet it halfway.  Even worse than that though, is the story AFTER the backstory; the conspiracy going on with the town involving this place after the animatronics became haunted.  It’s again conveyed to us one long exposition dump right at the start of the third act (to a character who’s only role is to receive said dump), and it is jaw-droopingly uninspired and unjustifiable.  I couldn’t take the movie the least bit seriously after that point and not even Nicolas Cage could get me to care about it anymore.  I just don’t understand why the movie felt the need to so thoroughly explain itself like this; especially when they didn’t have anything worth explaining in the first place.

They were trying to keep the pinball machine’s high score to themselves!?  I knew it all along!!

The question I keep coming back to is could this movie work if it was JUST Nicolas Cage going from room to room and wordlessly cleaning the place while occasionally taking out an evil robot.  There are movies with similar premises that DO work such as Evil Dead and 1408, but then those have genuinely good writing to provide context for the movie.  Perhaps if they went all in on the game idea and let the story of this place unfold as Nicolas Cage finds stuff throughout the restaurant, it could have been enough of a hook to keep us invested even if he was the only character in the movie.  Even if it wasn’t all that great, I can’t imagine it’d be worse than what they did end up filling out the rest of the movie with.  Is the film worth watching?  I’m sadly going to have to say no, but there’s enough Nicolas Cage goodness in here that you might just want to check it out for him alone.  Frankly, I’d be interested in someone doing a fan edit of this movie that cut out most of the teenager and town stuff to focus solely on Cage’s journey in the movie, but frankly you’re probably better off watching that Banana Splits movie.  I didn’t care for it too much, but they at least had some decent writing in it which is what this movie sorely lacks.  It’s got some of the pieces in place, but you’re not exactly going to get anywhere if you try to build something with only half the parts you need.  Now if they were to put Nicolas Cage in that Banana Splits movie, THEN we’d have something worth talking about!

2 out of 5

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