Movie Review: Willy’s Wonderland

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.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via Irish Times)

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