As soon as the credits started rolling at the end of Willy’s Wonderland, I made a somewhat predictable move by tweeting the poster with the caption ”Well, that was…different”. A fellow denizen of Film Twitter replied ”How many times do you think that exact sentence has been written about a Nicolas Cage movie?” and, for better or worse, it’s true, it certainly has become a virtually automated verbatim response to a great deal of the man’s cinematic ventures of late. I’ve always been a fan to tell you the truth, you can bet your last penny that I will die on the hill of defending his fantastic performances in the likes of Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas, Matchstick Men and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, in much the same way that I will always retain a soft spot for the ridiculousness of Con Air, Face/Off and, yes, even Drive Angry.
His far more ‘out-there’ ventures tend to swing between the extremes of wonderful films such as Mandy and the painfully inept drivel-fest Jiu Jitsu, and there’s an abundance of negligible fodder to offset his renowned profligacy. All in all, the guy is capable of really great, soulful work and is something of a maverick in terms of his ‘silent film’ physicality, and the fact that more writer-directors are engineering utterly batshit movies with Cage in mind is something I find hilariously endearing.
A brand new Cage outing (and one of his most demented yet), Willy’s Wonderland was sitting on the Blood List of unproduced horror and thriller screenplays until old Nicolas himself noticed it, loving the idea so much that he contacted writer G.O. Parsons and asked to produce the film and take the lead role. Though it definitely has its flaws, it’s the kind of film that could only hope to reasonably get away with it with Cage at the helm. A strange fact, given that he doesn’t emit one word for the entire runtime.
As the film opens, an unnamed drifter (Cage) is rocking down the highway in his Chevy Camaro when he runs over a tire stinger in Hayesville, Nevada. Found by the friendly and extremely loquacious local mechanic Jed Love (Chris Warner), our hero is informed that his car can be as good as new the next day providing that he pays $,1000 in cash up-front. With nothing but plastic in his wallet and every ATM in the town mysteriously out-of-order, the drifter is in, as Jed puts it, a ‘dilly of a pickle’.
Hope seems to rear its head when Jed makes an unusual proposition: Willy’s Wonderland, a long-abandoned family fun complex, is shortly due for re-opening and owner Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz) desperately wants the establishment spick and span so that he may entice the public back through its doors. If the drifter is prepared to spend the whole night cleaning every inch of dust, dirt and graffiti, Tex will pay for all of his car repairs and see him on his merry way the next morning. With no wriggle-room, our man silently acquiesces.
Amid this innocuous sequence of events, local teenager Liv Hawthorne (Emily Tosta) has been handcuffed in her trailer by Hayesville’s sheriff Eloise Lund (Beth Grant), who also happens to be Liv’s adoptive mother. Having been caught once again in the much-attempted act of burning Willy’s to the ground, Liv is trying to mobilise her friends to get rid of this god-forsaken place once and for all. You see, what the drifter doesn’t know is that the Wonderland’s eight animatronic mascots- Willy Weasel, Arty Alligator, Cammy Chameleon, Ozzie Ostrich, Tito Turtle, Knighty Knight, Gus Gorilla, and Siren Sara- are actually possessed by homicidal supernatural entities, and he’s going to have to fight like hell through the night against these abominations if he wants to get out of dodge.
Although he never talks, the drifter (who is fittingly credited as The Janitor) is destined to become a cult-followed peak entry in Cage’s back catalogue of wacky characters, the actor’s idiosyncrasies elevating the subject matter to a state of surreal and visceral madness that couldn’t have been pulled off by anybody else. From the mannered nods and eyebrow-cocking behind his shades to the trademark Cage combat screams, the Janitor is inherently badass and hilarious, a loving send-up of Cage’s understandable status as a pop-culture madman. The fact that he appears to be a virtually indestructible hard nut who isn’t fazed by the demonic happenings only makes it funnier, punctuating his bloody brawls with timed breaks where he guzzles copious amounts of his favourite fizzy caffeinated drink and plays pinball.
Demarcating Cage’s axiomatically suitable performance, everything else is very much a mixed bag, as you may have guessed. The exposition of the Wonderland’s dark secrets is imaginatively disturbing and unpleasant, a nasty town mythology with evocations of John Wayne Gacy. It lends some commendable gravity to a script that could have easily phoned in some clunky, afterthought ‘the mascots are actually Satan’ aspect and dials the viewer’s rooting for Cage up to eleven. Weirdly, and to my complete surprise, all of the performances in the film are actually pretty decent, not the school of glazed-over, straight-to-DVD style monotony that I was expecting. It could be argued that levying typical expectations against this kind of film is to miss the point in a hilariously uptight fashion, but standards are standards.
In terms of the cinematography, there’s only one fair summary…it’s crap. Everything is pretty washed out and screams ‘low budget’, but it’s ultimately something I would have been a lot more upset about had I been watching an arthouse flick or austere crime drama as opposed to this knowingly stupid schlock-fest. A lot of the fight sequences are adorned with a rather amateurish editing, Cage’s ruck with Gus Gorilla almost looking tacked on from a student film. I wasn’t entirely un-miffed by how cheap and nasty the film looked, but the horrendous story behind the mascots lent a dimension of scuzzy creepiness to the movie that made me retroactively more forgiving of the poorer visual moments, it’s nightmarish as well as being amusing in apex-Cage fashion. Despite the interesting writing behind Willy Weasel and his fellow monstrosities, the story peters out into weirdly lethargic territory that starts to show more holes than a slice of Emmental.
In the final analysis, I think I enjoyed it in a manner that was more ironic than the creators intended. I came and stayed for Cage and the man certainly entertained me, but I get the notion that the film believes itself to be cleverer and more irreverent than it actually is. Were it not for a slew of repetitive scenes, clumsy action sequences and a few other things that can’t simply be forgiven just because it’s meant to be ludicrous, Willy’s Wonderland could have been an awesome new midnight movie that echoed the kind of singularly brilliant horror-fun that maestros like Carpenter pumped out a-plenty during the 80s. In actuality, it’s a fairly funny and hammy Nicolas Cage vehicle that is great for a Friday night with beers and pals, but nothing more.