As the greatest actor in the history of the cinematic medium, Nicolas Cage is always looking for new ways to stretch, whether that be showing up on set wearing a prosthetic nose or by affecting whatever accent strikes his fancy on any given day. So for the new horror-comedy, Willy’s Wonderland, this master thespian has set himself a new challenge with a role devoid of a single line of dialogue. Fascinated as he is with the expressive techniques of silent film actors, it’s almost a surprise that he hasn’t tried this out earlier. The kookiness of his line readings is obviously legendary at this point. But could we now be entering a new phase of the Silent Cage?
I say this because earlier this year, the Sundance premiere of Prisoners of the Ghostland also saw Monsieur Cage go long stretches without much to say. Here he plays a similarly stoic outlaw, speeding through the backwoods of America at the film’s start in his sleek Chevrolet Camaro (always a solid product placement opportunity to hook up with the man who did the Japanese Pachinko commercials). But then a blown tire and lack of cash force our protagonist (credited only as The Janitor) to take a one-night cleaning job at Willy’s Wonderland, a shuttered Chuck E. Cheese styled family fun center, in order to pay the car repair bill. Donning an old-school employee t-shirt and dutifully getting to work scrubbing graffiti off the walls, the gig seems easy enough at first. That is, until the deranged-looking animatronic mascots start coming to life in a murderous frenzy.
There’s really not much more to Willy’s Wonderland than that. Sure, there’s a routine subplot about a young woman named Liz (Mayans M.C.’s Emily Tosta) and her friends who break into the amusement center on the same night to try and burn it down, cementing the classic slasher movie vibe as they’re gruesomely killed off one by one. The wonderful Beth Grant also shows up as the town sheriff to explain the fittingly silly backstory of Willy’s, which was once operated by a notorious serial killer who transferred his spirit into the machines upon his death. But mostly, this is just Cage v. evil animatronics in a death match for the ages.
For his part, Cage remains pretty nonplussed through all of this, as he usually does in movies where he’s faced with supernatural shenanigans. But here, unlike in something like Pay the Ghost or Knowing where he generally just looks confused and/or bored, there’s a self-awareness to this aspect, suggesting a larger character history of The Janitor fighting these kinds of literal demons before. And while there’s never really any doubt that Cage will make it through the night successfully, it doesn’t necessarily dull the fun of watching him brutally massacre a bunch of scary robots (or chug energy drinks and play pinball, for that matter, which takes up a significant amount of the runtime). His purely physical performance is as effortlessly lively as the silent era greats, giving greater credence to the long-standing rumours that Nic Cage is indeed a vampire from another era.
Directed by Kevin Lewis (whose previous credits include 2003’s Playboy Playmate starring Malibu Spring Break), Willy’s Wonderland turns out to be a breath of fresh air even when running through all the proverbial bases, evoking retro ‘80s nostalgia while also remaining focused on the satisfying nuts and bolts of the horror genre. I mean, this concept alone was always going to be an immediate sell. But in this case, us Cage-o-holics are gifted with something that more or less lives up to its gonzo premise (Mom and Dad or Primal, take note).