“Once upon a time, a little mouse moved into St. Marinara’s orphanage. He loved to play games with all the other orphans. But most of all, Chuck E. loved learning to play music. He especially loved the song ‘Happy Birthday.’” – The Story of Chuck E. Cheese
“We’re all mad here.” – Alice in Wonderland
On a recent episode of Wandering Monster, John, Lemons, and I had one of our many discussions regarding monsters – specifically, in this case, monsters from video games. On this occasion, I happened to bring a game to the conversation called Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNAF). For those who have not had the pleasure, FNAF is a game in which one plays as a security guard who keeps tabs on the security cameras in, essentially, a haunted Chuck E. Cheese in which the animatronic performers have come to life and will do creative and terrible things to your body, given the opportunity. The point of the game is to use security doors and your watchful eye to prevent this outcome. FNAF was a monster hit for an indie game, and went on to inspire so many sequels that the creator held the Gunness World Record for “Most Sequels Released in One Year.” I’m sure this was a proud achievement for a guy who launched FNAF based on the spectacular failure and frighteningly bad character design of his previous games. Those game also happened to be exclusively Christian, and thus did not center on homicidal automatons.
I mention this because there’s a great deal of FNAF in the DNA of a truly delightful film – starring Nicolas Cage in full badass mode, no less! – called Willy’s Wonderland.
When I first heard the scuttlebutt about Willy’s Wonderland, my initial reaction was actually irritation. Let me explain: it was irritation at the recognition that despite my pretensions to individuality or uniqueness, I am evidently pretty easy to figure out and, in fact, that I’m part of a demographic that is aggressively (and effectively) marketed to. I am a millennial, and thus grew up attending birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese; likewise, I came of age watching classic slices of Nicolas Cage weirdness like Face/Off and Con Air, and… well, the list is extensive. I am an OG Cage fan, and I am also given to the inevitable nostalgia for the pleasures of one’s youth that one seems to gravitate back toward during middle age. My irritation at this realization was brief and, mercifully, misplaced. This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Willy’s Wonderland (currently available streaming as well as in theaters). It was, in a word, sublime.
There are a few facts that people often forget or gloss over when they are good-naturedly giving my sweet Nicolas shit for his over-the-top, scenery-chewing turns in films like Vampire’s Kiss and his constant participation in projects of, shall we say, questionable quality, such as Ghost Rider. The first of these facts to keep in mind is that Nic Cage is a total snack. In Willy’s Wonderland, he is at his most smoldering. Not to subject Nic to the male gaze, but he has also obviously been hitting the gym, and is more jacked than I have seen him in a while, which is a bizarre visual contrast to his appearance in the recent (and also excellent) Mom and Dad.
Second: Cage occupies the same weird, nondualistic space inhabited by Al Pacino in that he is both a great actor – frankly, one of the best working today – and a terrible actor who has been involved in some truly irredeemable projects over the years. Thus, when cracking open a Nicolas Cage film, one never really knows if one is gearing up for the former or the latter. Imagine my delight when Willy’s Wonderland opened with a bang and only continued to get better from there. Willy’s Wonderland, written by G.O. Parsons and directed by Kevin Lewis, has much in common with the work of directors Rob Zombie and Quentin Tarantino; it is a postmodern pastiche of “cool,” yet has a constant current of goofy, character-driven comedy that keeps the whole affair from coming off as the semiotic equivalent of a pair of sunglasses.
John Carpenter is, indeed, a big influence here, as is the early work of Sam Raimi. Willy’s use of practical effects, puppets, amped-up foley work: all heighten the insanity and fun of the whole affair considerably. There are moments when one feels that the practical effects were intentionally designed to elicit delight in fans of the old-school approach to movie monsters – my favorite example was a 1.5-second shot of a flapping tongue lashing out of a pair of toothy jaws. I won’t spoil any more of the plot than that, because while the broad outlines of the plot are discernable from the move poster (let alone the trailers), there are enough twists and an ample amount of weirdness to keep the viewer on their toes.
Perhaps my enjoyment of Willy’s Wonderland is in part a result of it pressing the right combination of nostalgia-buttons in my malfunctioning brain: a little They Live, a dash of Evil Dead and a double jigger of Meet the Feebles and hey, presto! A film that Charles is guaranteed to love! Even so, it feels like there is an authentic love of these films and of the lived experience of the 1980s and 1990s here to give this movie, dare I say it, a soul. Almost like the kind that might inhabit a giant animatronic weasel.