For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
Have you ever wanted to see Nicolas Cage curb-stomp a large animatronic gorilla on a urinal? If so, Willy’s Wonderland is for you.
That’s it. That’s the review.
All right. Fine. Sit down and I’ll tell you a story. You already are sitting? That makes sense. I digress. The details of Cage’s career are already well-known and perhaps only rivaled in memes about Keanu Reeves. He’s seen more highs than someone beneath the school bleachers on homecoming night and more lows than the backseats of Mazda Miatas on homecoming night.
From this follows the corollary: If invited to a Nic Cage movie, the quality of the film is either terrific or terrible, and the result is as unknowable as the far reaches of the universe traveling away from us faster than we could ever hope to communicate. Nic Cage movies are like Schrodinger’s Box. You will not know how to feel until the credits start rolling.
And, whew boy howdy, when I saw this was distributed by Screen Media, which was acquired by Chicken Soup for the Soul back in 2017, I could not have had lower expectations. Cage did that Left Behind movie after all.
I almost exclusively watch horror movies at this point in life because they feel like the most interesting ones to say anything about right now. Maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s the best way to feel feelings that feel authentic. Comedies feel like a mere distraction from the everyday horrors that crash against us without end. Dramas can feel hollow and exploitative. At least when horror distracts or feels exploitative, I feel terrified about it and it aligns with reality. But my therapist said I shouldn’t be using my movie reviews to unpack emotional trauma and capitalistic oppression.
Even loving horror movies in all their forms, I don’t always need a three-hour, problematic Lars Von Trier-intellectual, erotic, apocalyptic comedy-horror art film exploring the depths of existential angst on the backdrop of humanity’s ecological hubris that extends even to the stars. It’s exhausting to type about let alone watch. Sometimes I just want to watch a “bad” movie that has loose storytelling, campy effects, bad overacting and some gimmicky bullshit I can make fun of for a little bit before passing out with my hand in a popcorn bowl and my cats delicately checking my pulse for opportunity.
That’s what I thought I was getting. Oh, friend. I thought I was getting something bad. But Willy’s Wonderland might be the greatest horror send-up since Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.
I thought this was going to scratch my bad-art itch because it acts on the same basic premise as the horror video game Five Nights at Freddy’s. With the game receiving critical acclaim and popularity, it seemed Willy’s was going to be a low-brow cash grab with a banner name riding on recent cinematic brilliance in Pig.
Willy’s Wonderland is like Five Nights at Freddy’s in the same sense that The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lion King are similar. Yes, Willy’s and Freddy’s both feature surviving sentient animatronics with a taste for murder. Narnia and The Lion King both feature kings in the form of talking lions trying to defeat evil. But the similarities practically end there after these essentially minor pieces, and the deviations are brilliant and unique.
The most prevalent deviation is a turn on the basic horror trope that the protagonist may survive the length of the movie, but the danger posed to them is real and the risk is that they won’t make it to the credits. At no point do we doubt that the protagonist — the nameless, voiceless Janitor played by Cage — is in any danger whatsoever. As another character quips, “You don’t understand! You locked the wrong guy up in here. He’s not trapped in here with them. They’re trapped in here with him!”
Well-meaning characters attempt to come to his rescue, knowing about the nefarious qualities of Willy’s Wonderland and its inhabitants. The risk is for them, though, not the Janitor. The Janitor transcends the movie’s genre. All the other characters are in a supernatural horror. The Janitor is in a Mike Judge film that borders on Kafkaesque, dutifully taking his work breaks, keeping his shirt clean and fulfilling the job he was meant to do so he can get back to his life.
It’s easy enough to make a horror comedy. Heck, the darkest time for the genre itself was when we couldn’t tell when the horror ended and the comedy began. Although it’s a common subgenre, it has its bright points, from Shaun of the Dead to What We Do in the Shadows which make for funny films first on a backdrop of horror plots, and its masterpieces, like The Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, which make horror films first and lampoon their tropes.
Willy’s Wonderland falls closer to the masterpiece end of the spectrum than not, subverting and twisting common horror practices. The protagonist is not looking to escape or even defeat the Big Bad Evil Guy, but he takes his routines very seriously. The supporting characters are well aware of red flags (at least initially) and work to avoid them (for the most part). There is no cliche trickery and betrayal by those who would align themselves with evil.
This, of course, meant that this movie served exactly the purpose I needed it to serve, just in the most surprisingly satisfying way. Instead of bad art, I got a tight enough story with a lead actor capable of the most surreal greatness at times. Expectations were exceeded and, if they changed to a sort of predictability, it was predictability within the world of the story that brought a freshness that simply wasn’t anticipated.
So when I opened up this Schrodinger’s Box of Nic Cage, what I actually find is … oh god, there’s a cat in here.