A few weeks ago, I was writing about how to make a good video game movie. And, well, I think I found the answer: don’t make one at all.
Okay, (faz)bear with me here. So, Five Nights at Freddy’s was a smash-hit indie horror video game series which took off a few years ago, of which I happen to be very fond, which features a protagonist trying to survive a night in an old restaurant inhabited by haunted and murderous animatronic animals. And Willy’s Wonderland, a new horror flick from Kevin Lewis and starring Nicolas Cage, features a protagonist trying to survive a single night in an old restaurant inhabited by haunted and murderous animatronic creatures. See what I’m getting at?
I’m not trying to imply that Willy’s Wonderland is a rip-off of FNAF; it has a lot in common with the game series, for sure, but it’s a story moulded around the medium of film in a way that the actual game series couldn’t be. There’s no doubt that the large and engaged fandom for the game series helped elevate Willy’s Wonderland into a film of genuine note; honestly, I so enjoyed the first few FNAF games that I knew I had to watch a movie take on the same premise, whether they were directly connected or not.
Following a wordless protagonist (Nicolas Cage, really leaning in to the cult-action-hero turn that his career has taken lately, and sort of brilliant to boot) after he ends up as one of the regular sacrifices a small town makes to the demonic animatronics (try saying that five times fast) of a haunted child’s play restaurant of yesteryear. It’s a really solid B-movie premise, seductively goofy and exploratory of a surprisingly well-developed small town backdrop, and it’s pretty cool to see the movie try for more than just a set-up for the most violence it can cram into ninety minutes courtesy of brand mascots.
Horror built into the foundations of a community is something that I find really compelling, and I dig this version of it a lot: Willy’s Wonderland, the restaurant at the centre of the movie, hits that sweet spot of the branding and marketing that I grew up with, mixing nostalgia with creep factor, and the community that surrounds it is equally juicy (especially a great turn by Beth Grant as the local sheriff). Cage, without a line of dialogue in the whole movie, has nothing to work with but his odd screen presence, and that slightly lopsided charisma serves the movie really well. A stack of horny teen body counts are probably Willie’s Wonderland’s biggest drop-off point, but I understand their function, even if I decry their stupidity.The action is occasionally stylish, the dread well-cultivated, the invention of this cheerful kids’ brand perfect down to the last detail and then subverted to great effect.
And, to be quite honest, I loved Willy’s Wonderland. I think that love owes a debt to my adoration of the game series; that fondness for this premise, despite the movie’s originality in its execution, carries over here in a way that really serves this movie, and, if you’re a fan of FNAF, you’ll probably get something out of this, too. But even if you don’t, there’s enough invention and depth here to make Willy’s Wonderland worth watching.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Irish Times)