In the past few years, Nicolas Cage has been in some great horror movies. He was the lead in 2018’s Mandy, and he had a starring role in last year’s Color Out of Space. Both of those were among the best horror films of their respective years, and Color Out of Space even made our top ten list of 2020. So when I saw the trailer for the Kevin Lewis directed Willy’s Wonderland, I was hopeful that it would continue that trend and be the next great Nicolas Cage horror movie.
In it, Cage stars alongside Emily Tosta and Beth Grant, and he plays a man known only as The Janitor. When the movie begins, he finds himself stranded in a small town in Nevada, and he needs to get his car fixed. The town’s mechanic only takes cash, and all the ATMs are out of order, so to pay for the repairs, he agrees to spend the night cleaning a place called Willy’s Wonderland, a Chuck E. Cheese-esque family fun center. While there, the animatronic figures come to life and try to kill him, and his night turns into a bloody battle for survival.
That’s a pretty crazy premise, so it sounds like it would make a great horror movie. And for the first half of the film, it is. To begin, The Janitor is a fantastic character. He’s a stereotypical tough guy, but he’s apparently mute. He doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in the entire film, so Cage has to convey his personality solely through facial expressions and body language. It could’ve easily looked silly, but Cage pulls it off perfectly. Granted, he’s totally cheesy and over-the-top, but it absolutely works. He brings a unique charm to the role, so as ridiculous as it may be, you can’t help but love every minute of it.
And when the evil animatronic figures come to life and attack him, the fight scenes are just as awesome as you’d expect. The Janitor goes full-on crazy as only Nicolas Cage can, and watching him beat the living hell out of these things is an absolute treat to watch. Sure, it’s not exactly great art or high-class cinema, but it’s super fun, so if you’re the kind of person who would enjoy crazy Nicolas Cage fighting evil animatronics, you’re going to love him in this role.
But as great as this character is, he can’t carry an entire movie all on his own, so the film also features a group of teenagers who want to burn down Willy’s Wonderland. They don’t do much in the first half of the movie, but you know they’re going to play a bigger role later on. You know the film is going to need some fresh blood to change things up a bit, and you hope these teenagers will do just that and take the story in a new and interesting direction.
Unfortunately, though, they do the exact opposite. They finally get to Willy’s Wonderland at about the film’s halfway point, and when they arrive, the movie takes a steep nosedive in quality. It almost immediately devolves into a bunch of horror clichés that distract you from what the film gets right. To take just one example, when they’re outside the place, the teenagers talk about how dangerous the evil animatronics are, but once they get inside, two of them go off on their own to have sex.
It’s an absolutely asinine decision, and it’s not the only one they make. These kids do a lot of stupid stuff, and their nonsense turns the movie into a super generic slasher. In fact, it becomes so by-the-numbers that even the kills are boring. The second half of the film doesn’t give us anything unique or interesting, so it fails to justify the change of pace from the great first half.
On top of that, this second half of the movie also manages to tarnish some of the good elements in the story. For instance, The Janitor still goes full-on Nic Cage crazy when he fights the evil animatronics, and it’s just as awesome as it was in the first half, but even he does some really inexplicable things in this second part of the film. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that there are times when he clearly wants to protect the kids, but there are other times when he completely ignores them and just lets them get killed. The movie gives a very vague explanation for this, so it just comes across as a lazy excuse to let the animatronics kill a few victims.
In a similar vein, I also thought the mythology was pretty cool, but it had a gaping hole that really bothered me. The teenagers explain to Cage’s character why the animatronics come to life and kill people (apparently, the entire town knows about the place), and without giving anything away, let me just say that the reason behind it has an intriguing “evil never dies” kind of a vibe that I think most horror fans would appreciate.
However, when they explain why the townspeople don’t just destroy Willy’s Wonderland and be done with it, their explanation is really weak. The teenagers themselves would’ve done it if they hadn’t tried to save The Janitor first, so there’s no reason why the rest of the town couldn’t have done it long before then. Admittedly, this isn’t the biggest problem in the world, but I’m a big fan of mythology, so this flaw stuck out more to me than it might to other people.
But even if I’m alone in being bothered by that hole in the mythology, the other flaws are still enough to make it impossible for me to recommend Willy’s Wonderland. While the first half of it is actually really good, the second half goes downhill so quickly that it ruins the entire movie. It turns into a generic slasher complete with many of the terrible clichés that the subgenre’s better offerings usually avoid, so the best I can say is that it might be worth a watch if you’re a Nicolas Cage completist or a huge slasher fanatic. But if you’re not either of those things, then you should just give this one a pass.