04
Mar
21

Willy’s Wonderland (2021): The Dark Side of the Ball Pit

a Primal Root written review

“Put on your balls, Evan. We’re going to Willy’s!” Sheriff Lund, Willy’s Wonderland

Man oh man, the stories I could tell you about Friday evenings after getting dropped off by the bus in elementary school, when Mom and Dad would chuck me in the back of their ride and I’d spend hours drifting around a filthy booger and fecal matter filled ball pit, crawling around two stories off the ground in plastic tubes, spending my parents hard earned money to collect tickets on games of chance so I could trade them in for cheap plastic bullshit I’d lose not ten minutes after we left after my parents got their fill of pizza and cheap draft beer. And it was all watched over by one smiling, creepy, spastic animatronic rat and his pals. That mother fucker’s name was Chuck E. Cheese, and he was a bit of a regular Friday night thing.

It’s a bizarre local kind of money wasting tourist trap, only it’s not for tourists, it’s for us desperate 80’s and 90’s locals. A place to exchange your money for absolute worthless bullshit. I have some fantastic memories there, especially when I went back as a teenager trying to be ironically funny and having my birthdays there. It’s a slice of quintessential American nostalgia for several generations. A bright, neon, ode to capitalism at it’s finest in the guise of children’s distractive, hollow, entertainment. It’s an experience that has sunk in like a summer tick in our collective nostalgic subconscious.

Enter the the 2021 low rent, high concept, bargain basement blast of neon nostalgic nightmare fodder Academy Award Winning Actor Nicolas Cage vehicle, Willy’s Wonderland. A film where an exceedingly quiet, muscle car driving, soda addicted drifter blows out a tire on the outskirts of a small town where they don’t have the internet, so to pay off the repairs to his car he is given the option to clean up an abandoned local children’s amusement shit hole, the Willy’s Wonderland of the title. The drifter has no name and is simply credited as “Janitor” in the credits and the character has not a single line of dialog for the duration of the film and happens to be the lead character…and is played by Nicolas Cage. The Janitor is given a Willy’s Wonderland t-shirt, a handshake from the stores owner, Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz) and silently gets to cleaning the place up, all the while sensing there is something wrong with the eight rainbow colored, ancient, rotten, mildewy, demonically possessed animatronics standing on the Willy’s Wonderland stage…watching him with their dead, lifeless eyes. While also making absolutely sure to take rest breaks every hour to pace himself with an ice cold can of soda and a game of pinball. It’s not long before these robotic creatures begin singing, dancing and then maliciously attacking The Janitor who, without even a second of surprise, shock, or hesitation, retaliates with devastatingly brutal violence. He does not attempt to flee or even scream he has a job to do after all. He simply cleans up the mess left behind and tackles every obstacle that comes his way without so much as uttering a single word.

We are given the bulk of the exposition from two characters. Sheriff Lund, played by the always incredibly fun to watch Beth Grant probably best know for doubting your commitment to Sparkle Motion in 2001’s Donnie Darko, and the young woman who lives with Sheriff Lund and is intent of soaking Willy’s Wonderland in gasoline and burning that fucking place tot he ground, Liv, played by Emily Tosta. Through these two we get an intimate history of Willy’s Wonderland and the horrifically evil deeds that have occurred within it’s walls and why it stands as a death trap and curse in the small town of Hayesville, Nevada. Liv gathers her group of twenty something teenage accomplices and they head to Willy’s to finally burn the “Gateway to Hell” down for good as Sheriff Lund does her damndest to maintain the status quo as the unfazed and seemingly unsinkable Janitor deals with surviving the night, battling the demonic animatronic furry freak show, while dealing with all the issues inherent in small town big secrets and those who are still living to keep them under wraps. Will our Birthday Boy survive the night to reclaim his repaired car? Will Willy and his friends feast on the flesh of the innocent forever more with the help of law enforcement and those who run the town? Will Liv and her teenage fan club destroy Willy’s once and for all? buy the ticket and take the ride…to Willy’s Wonderland and find out, Gang.

Coming out of Willy’s Wonderland I was genuinely impressed with what they were able to create with what obviously seemed to be fairly limited means. The recreation of a Chuck E. Cheese style family attraction is absolute perfection. From the arcade area, to the dining hall, the filthy ball pit, and even the cheap, shitty cheap framed character posters on the walls, it all felt completely authentic and like it was somehow surgically removed from our memory banks, filth and all. It all feels familiar and just like it would be to go back to one of these places today. Trust me, I took a look at the old, still functioning Chuck E. Cheese in my hometown and it’s just as creepy as Wally’s Wonderland is presented. I also MUST compliment the phenomenal soundtrack to Willy’s Wonderland. From the original songs almost entirely written and performed by Émoi to the brilliant selections of old chestnuts, every musical component of this flick nails the very tired, very old and worn out nostalgia of it. Across the board, the performances are greatly entertaining. It’s a movie called Willy’s Wonderland and it’s basically an excuse for Nic Cage to beat the shit out of people in moderately frightening furry costumes, so as you might expect, the performances are either greatly exaggerated, cheesy or over the top. Emily Tosta as Liv is believable as a young, traumatized woman trying to do right, Beth Grant as Sheriff Lund turns in probably the most human and believable performance of the whole film as an old woman in charge of law enforcement who is steadfast but obviously exhausted from constantly coming up with justifications for maintaining this cursed small towns status quo. She nails the comedy, but there’s a lot of heart in her performance, too. Especially for a killer fuzzy monster movie. But, as you might expect, Nicolas Cage steals the show as the silent Janitor. A man who just wants to get the fucking job done and be on his way. He dances, he fights and he scrubs the urinals and he is reliantly captivating to watch in every single moment.

And in this performance of the Janitor, in that characterization, I can’t help but see Willy’s Wonderland as a perfect metaphor for 2020 as a frontline worker asked to go into harms way in order to make ends meet when you have absolutely no other choice. You’re voiceless and you have to follow your orders if you want to get out of this situation. You’re locked in, you can’t get out, you have to get the job done to claim your reward but there’s also this intense, malicious evil that wants to kill you. At the core of this insanely fun horror splatter flick there’s a dark at the core of the proceedings about what it is to be a blue collar working stiff in America, constantly getting fucked over but always expected to rise to the occasion. We keep our mouths shut and we get the fucking job done despite hardly being able to fucking survive. We aren’t surprised when shit happens, because it always does. You adapt, you cope, you don’t ask for anything because you know you’ll never get it. But we do it. We get it done, we do it well, we take our breaks, we play our pinball, we dance when we can and we fucking do it. Because fuck you.

In conclusion, Willy’s Wonderland is fucking great and an absolute joy of a funky little low budget monster movie. It’s spunky, it’s got heart, intestines and severed heads. It strikes all the right notes of this type of outing perfectly and is elevated to a B-Movie instant cult status glory by a grounded badass performance by Nicolas Cage, who without saying a word, embodies the everyday working man perfectly, even while battling the members of Willy the Weasels entourage in a rundown children’s entertainment facility. My only real criticism is there should have many more children getting killed and WHY do you even bother filming sex scenes if the actress won’t take her bra off and the guy won’t hang dong? The movie is already an R-Rated slice of Trash Cinema! Throw us a bone here, Kevin Lewis (who directed this thing)! Every other aspect of the film is schlock perfection and one I highly recommend as a perfect requiem for the year 2020.

I reward Willy’s Wonderland FOUR out of FIVE Dumpster Nuggets!

Stay Safe and Stay Trashy, Gang!

-Root


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