VOD film review: Willy’s Wonderland (2021)
Hackneyed genre routines6
Impressive work ethic8
Anton Bitel | On 09, Feb 2021
Director: Kevin Lewis
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emily Tosta, Beth Grant, Caylee Cowan, Terayle Hill
There are words that, when placed in a title, promise a certain something – not necessarily affiliation to a particular genre, but at least adherence to a sensibility. “Trash” is one such word, “turkey” is another – and “willy” too, which brought hilariously unfortunate pro-nudist associations to Simon Wincer’s family film Free Willy and which now graces Kevin Lewis’ Willy’s Wonderland. Someone clearly noticed this at a late stage in the production, and panicked – for the film is now being released in several regions under the altered and altogether less nodding-and-winking title Wally’s Wonderland. Still, the innuendo of the original name was almost certainly integral to the intentions of screenwriter GO Parsons, who throws in lines like “suspicious smells coming from Willy’s” and “Willy, I’m so sorry about this prick”. None of those lines, however, come from the film’s hero (credited only as ‘the Janitor’) – a classic Man With No Name who also utters not a word.
As this laconic stranger, just passing through in his leathers and mirror shades, gets stuck in the small town of Hayesville, he is also trapped in a series of familiar genre routines. Indeed, the film’s trajectory is mapped out in a prologue, which shows a terrified family being pursued through the party rooms and back corridors of children’s entertainment centre Willy’s Wonderland.
The community with a sinister secret is a cliché as old as time. Being locked overnight into a sideshow attraction with murderous freaks is straight out of Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse or Rob Zombie’s 31. Children’s mascots inhabited by the souls of serial killers are well known from the Chucky series, while their animatronic upgrades featured in Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play reimagining and Danishka Esterhazy’s The Banana Splits Movie. And hell, even Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman’s The Toxic Avenger had a janitor for its ultraviolent protagonist. In other words, the generic roads that our hero is travelling are clearly sign-posted. There is though, in this well-trodden landscape, one wildcard: the Janitor is played by none other than Nicolas Cage (also one of the producers), who can always be relied upon to bring a hot streak of unpredictability.
Most janitors do not drive a sports car, most janitors would hesitate before offering to pay out $1,000 for tyre repairs, and most janitors are not possessed of a mean set of fighting powers and physical resilience to match their lack of interpersonal skills – but Cage’s protagonist is a mystery man who has agreed to serve as janitor for one night only, cleaning out the neglected interiors of Willy’s Wonderland while his own vehicle is being repaired. Left alone in the place – locked in, even – the Janitor will apply himself with an intense assiduousness to the task at hand, while also painstakingly observing his break times with a drink of Punch pop and a game of pinball.
This rigorous work ethic is in no way disrupted when the eight wonderland mascots start coming to life and endeavouring to end his – to the Janitor, unfazed by everything, they are just more trash to be taken out. The arrival of sole previous Wonderland survivor Liv (Emily Tosta) and five co-ed friends merely allows for a body count, while barely affecting the Janitor’s methodical one-man cleaning operation.
Lewis’ film operates on a series of ironies and incongruities. It is set in an amusement centre for children, but comes with adult doses of foul-mouthed language, sex, gore and death. Its scenarios feel a little rote, but are enlivened by the craziness that Cage brings to everything. It features a grotesque parade of motor-operated automata, and yet its human protagonist, in all his work-proud affectlessness, comes across as far more robotic than his adversaries. Indeed, with his mute manner, vicious aggression and relentless unstoppability, the Janitor would himself make a perfect slasher, and there is the sense that the eight murderous mascots are doomed, without realising it, to be his victims. Here he just happens to be the hero – while also an anal-retentive stickler to his working schedule.
And so Willy’s Wonderland occupies a luridly lit, cheesily fun space of pure genre. “Guys, this isn’t for your entertainment, ok?”, Liv will insist, as she leads her crew to the Wonderland. “It’s for doing what’s right.” Viewers will find themselves agreeing with her friend Bob (Terayle Hill) who responds: “It’s got to be a little entertaining. Look I want to see them freak bastards die.” These are expectations on which Willy’s Wonderland certainly delivers with an unhinged glee.