Between Fried Barry, Slaxx, and Psycho Goreman, I’ve been having a disappointing run with silly-on-purpose schlock this year. I was starting to worry that I’m losing my taste for the self-aware “Bad” Movie as a genre, at least until I borrowed a DVD copy of Willy’s Wonderland from the New Orleans Public Library. Unlike most of this year’s gimmick movies, Willy’s Wonderland commits to the absurdity of its premise without constantly pointing out how Funny it is in self-deprecating humor (give or take a couple wisecracking teens in bit roles, who do occasionally spoil the mood). Instead of a self-mocking throwback to over-the-top 80s schlock like Death Spa or The Lift, it’s a genuine specimen of that machines-gone-haywire genre that just happened to crash land in the wrong decade. It’s not exactly novel or expectations-defying in any way (if nothing else, it shares a lot of DNA with 2019’s Banana Splits Movie), but it still felt like a breath of fresh air in a year where every new release with a silly premise feels the need to constantly remind the audience it’s just having a goof.
I’m purposefully burying the lede here. Willy’s Wonderland is a Nic Cage stunt film in which the much-mocked actor fights killer animatronic Chuck E Cheese knockoffs for a slim 80 minutes and does not speak a single word of dialogue. There isn’t much to the film beyond that stunt, besides the bizarro casting of Beth Grant as a small-town sheriff and a few shithead teens who mostly hang around to up the body count. For the most part, it’s an impressively efficient meme movie, wherein Cage routinely rips the mechanical throats out of animatronic characters with names like Willy Weasel, Arty Alligator, and Knighty Knight – silently gloating over their dead robot bodies in victory. He also occasionally takes breaks between those slayings to play with a pinball machine he has a much more . . . sensual relationship with. It’s a shame the film felt the need to stray from those simple pleasures with sarcastic teenage victims-to-be, but they barely distract from the spectacle of Nic Cage doing a stripped down version of his schtick in an obnoxious pizza arcade setting.
Mandy remains the artistic high of the modern Nic Cage stunt movie, but Willy’s Wonderland still stands out as a pure-essence distillation of that genre. Cage is more of a prop than an actor here, as if the abstract idea of Nic Cage were more valuable than the performer himself. Outside of his absurdly over-manicured beard and pinball-playing hip thrusts, there’s nothing about Cage’s presence in Willy’s Wonderland especially worthy of the YouTube highlight reels that have reduced one of our mostly electrically entertaining actors into everyone’s favorite human meme. And yet the very idea of a feature-length movie in which Nic Cage fights a band of Chuck E Cheese knockoffs to the death is enough of a novelty worth seeking out – with or without the expected Nic Cage freakouts. In its best moments, the movie is weirdly reserved, allowing the absurdity of that stunt to entertain on it own terms without being mocked or underlined. If it had watered down that absurdity with the self-aware strand of LOL! So Random! humor that’s souring so many silly-on-purpose horror premises these days, it’d be miserable. It’s oddly refreshing in its restraint, and if it had held back even more of its overtly goofy humor it might’ve been something truly great.