Willy's Wonderland (2021)

Nicolas Cage stars in "Willy's Wonderland" directed by Kevin Lewis. (image:Landmark Studio Group)



Nicolas Cage, Emily Tosta, Ric Reitz, Chris Warner, Kai Kadlec, Christian Del Grosso, Caylee Cowan, Terayle Hill, Jonathan Mercedes, David Sheftell, Beth Grant

Directed by Kevin Lewis

All you need to know about “Willy’s Wonderland” is that Nicolas Cage plays a man with no name who drives a souped-up Camaro, is addicted to energy drinks, and finds himself locked in a Chuck E. Cheese wannabe establishment where he does battle with possessed animatronic robots. Yes, it's bonkers and loads of fun with a finale that includes Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” Take my money now.

After a brief flashback that gives us a glimpse of the horror funhouse “Willy’s Wonderland,” a black Chevy Camaro SS speeds down a rural highway in what appears to be an homage to Robert Rodriquez’s “Death Proof” down to the filter that gives the scene a sepia tone.

Sunglass-wearing Nicolas Cage is behind the wheel, pushing the car to its limits when a spike strip in the road brings the joyride to a halt. Wouldn’t you know it, a few minutes later a tow truck comes along, suspicious? Of course.

Cage finds himself in a small hick town — there is no working ATM and no internet — left with a $1000 bill to replace the tires and fix the damage done to his car. Since they don’t take plastic, he’s given the opportunity to work off the debt by Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz) owner of Willy’s Wonderland, “Well business is not what it used to be, but I am fixing to reopen and make Willy’s better than ever” he informs Cage.

“Here’s my offer, spend the night cleaning Willy’s Wonderland and I will pay to have your car fixed by morning tomorrow. You come out of there and your ride will be waiting for you right there.” Tex, with his white cowboy hat and suit, must be related to the Governor, the villain in Cage’s Sundance film “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” both obviously shop at the same Western clothing store.

Known simply in the credits as The Janitor, Cage gets locked inside Willy’s with his stash of Punch Pop — “a fistful of caffeine to your kisser” — which becomes his spinach, like Popeye, whoofing down a can to take on his antagonists which include Willy the Weasel (Jiri Stanek), Siren Sara (Jessica Graves Davis), Cammy the Chameleon (Taylor Towery), Tito the Turtle (Chris Schmidt Jr.), Arty the Alligator (Chris Bradley), Knighty Knight (Duke Jackson), Gus the Gorilla (Billy Bussey), and Ozzie the Ostrich (BJ Guyer).

The full-size animatronic puppets with actors inside also feature robotic parts (eyes-eyelids) to give them an automaton appearance. The film was shot in chronological order since there weren’t any extra costumes. Once the animatronic character is trashed by The Janitor that’s it. No room for second takes.

The story also features a group of teenagers who resemble the cast from the Geico horror commercial that decides to hide by the chainsaws next to the killer instead of jumping in the running car. Here too, bad decisions are made by the group as they break into Willy’s Wonderland giving the cliched characters a chance to up the body count. There is one standout in the bunch, Emily Tosta who plays the group’s Velma — as in the brains of the Scooby-Doo gang — as Liv, she’s the brave rebel hell-bent on destroying the evil animatronic robots inside Willy’s Wonderland.

Based on a script by G.O. Parsons which made The Blood List, the best unproduced horror, sci-fi, and thriller screenplays, “Willy’s Wonderland” is an absolute blast thanks to Cage who doesn’t utter one word of dialogue, using instead his facial and body movements to carry the film. It’s a shame that we don’t get any memorable quotes like “You don’t have a lucky crack pipe?” from “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” but we do get a memorable performance that delivers plenty of laughs.

Great character actor Beth Grant who’s appeared in over 100 films, from “Speed” and “Donnie Darko” to Oscar winners “Rain Man” and “No Country for Old Men,” plays the small-town sheriff caught in the middle between Tex’s evil robots and the innocent victims fighting for their lives in Willy’s. The backstory features a Satanic cult and shades of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “We Are Still Here,” and “Children of the Corn” as in the whole town is in on it.

There is not an overabundance of blood and gore in the film unless you count the buckets of oil that spew from the dismembered animatronics, and scares are nonexistent, but the creep factor is at 11 thanks to the mechanical miscreants who lurk in the shadows. “Willy’s Wonderland” is an entertaining funhouse of horror that only succeeds thanks to Nicolas Cage who by the way loves Chuck E. Cheese, “I enjoyed the skeeball and I enjoyed the pizza and I enjoyed the Diet Coke and the orange soda. Nice ice-cream cakes. Great place for a birthday party. Man, they really know what they’re doing. It’s great for the family. Chuck E. Cheese, I recommend it.”

(3 stars)

Now showing in theaters and available PVOD.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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