If Rob Zombie made a slasher movie that was also an “attack of the killer Muppets” movie, it might look like “Willy’s Wonderland.” Directed by Kevin Lewis, from a script by G.O. Parsons, this defiantly out-of-the-box and in some ways rather cunning grunge horror film, set from dusk till dawn inside a run-down family fun center, is a tongue-in-cheek thriller that knows how preposterous it is.
The monsters, you see, are the kiddie palace’s resident menagerie of towering animatronic mascots. They’re possessed by evil spirits, and they’ll tear your head off. But even as that sounds like the stuff of overripe horror parody, “Willy’s Wonderland,” taking its cue from films like “Leprechaun,” “Two Thousand Maniacs,” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Funhouse” (which came out 40 years ago, on March 13, 1981), treats its homicidal-furry-mascot premise as if it were a pre-ironic ’80s hack-’em-up. The movie is a canny ghoulie potboiler that whisks you along. And that, in no small part, is because of the other arresting creature at its center.
I’m talking about Nicolas Cage. I hadn’t seen a scuzzy, low-rent Nicolas Cage movie in a while, and was curious to check this one out because…well, because I hadn’t seen a scuzzy, low-rent Nicolas Cage movie in a while. On occasion they have their charms. They’re easy to mock, and I’ve mocked my share of them, but there’s a media cliché about Cage’s latter-day Z-movie oeuvre that’s so automatically accepted it may be a bit of an overstatement. Cage’s trash resume is said to be full of “paycheck movies,” and no one would seriously dispute that. Yet the implication of the phrase paycheck movie is that the actor is simply, and cynically, signing up for degraded roles — or, on another level, for soulless blockbusters — in order to keep the personal revenue flowing. The agents and managers and mortgages that must be paid, the lifestyle that must be maintained.
Once again: of course! Yet what makes Cage a unique player in the genre of sign-on-the-dotted-line muck is that he’s been doing it for so long, and with such devotion, that I think part of his fallen-from-respectability mystique is that he seriously likes making these movies. He enjoys the process, and believes on some level in their junky tarnished anti-aesthetic.
In “Willy’s Wonderland,” he plays a man with no name who is introduced with a typical array of Cage-as-badass signifiers. He’s wearing mirrored shades and a black-leather jacket with red racing stripes down the arms, and he’s got a biker beard that looks like it was drawn on with Emmett Kelly greasepaint. As power chords zing the soundtrack, the camera pulls up slowly up and circles him, the way it did George Michael at the start of the “Faith” video, to show us that Cage, in his mid-50s, has still got it. The aura. He coasts, of course, on a notion of cool so outdated it’s prehistoric, and he’s been doing that ever since “Wild at Heart” (a movie that, like its star, was deluded enough to think Elvis Presley was still subversive). Yet what does remain a little bit cool about Cage, in some jokey backhanded way, is that he’s an actor who believes so deeply in conjuring his aura that he’s become a walking amulet of schlock: The Man Who Would Be King Shit.
In “Willy’s Wonderland,” zooming his souped-up black Chevy through the hick town of Hayesville, he suffers a blowout, which is no accident (the road was booby-trapped with spikes). Neither is it an accident when he’s towed to a garage run by a yokel (Chris Warner) who tells him the bill is going to be $1,000, and that he only takes cash, and that none of the ATMs in Hayesville work. But he offers Cage a deal: If he’ll spend one long night playing janitor and cleaning Willy’s Wonderland, the owner of Willy’s will pay his tab.
Cage slowly nods yes — and I mean nods, because in addition to his character not being named (in the credits he’s called The Janitor), Cage doesn’t speak a single word in the entire movie. And he still holds down the center of it. That’s aura. It’s also a shrewd idea, given that Cage’s voice is often the most mockable thing about him; it’s the instrument of his overacting. Without words to speak, even in this cartoon toy-beastie burlesque, he becomes an action star of nuance.
He’s placed inside the family fun center, with chains on the doors outside, and the idea is that, unbeknownst to him, he’s going to be served up as a sacrificial lamb to the eight oversize animatronic characters who rule inside. Instead, Cage, barrel-chested in his Willy the Weasel T-shirt, jacked up on purple cans of caffeinated Punch juice, proceeds to take out the rags and the cleaning products and get down to work. And when he gets into a tiff with Ossie the Ostrich, the first kiddie creature who wants to have at him, he approaches the murderous big bird as if he were Jason Statham facing off against Jason Voorhees. He kicks some animatronic furry-animal ass, finally tearing out the creature’s motorized guts, splattering oil around as if it were blood.
And so it goes. At one point, a crew of delinquents break into Willy’s — they have plans to burn the place to the ground — and that affords an opportunity for the mascots to cause some serious carnage. One teen after another gets massacred, but not the saturnine rebel Liv (Emily Tosta), who gazes at Cage with a unique understanding of his vibe.
“Willy’s Wonderland” has the garish stop-and-go rhythm of an ’80s slasher film, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s a gorefest to relax into with a can of Punch (or something stronger). The movie, which is about celebrating Nicolas Cage as a master of the low-life universe, is as content to watch his midnight janitor take a pinball break, or scrub the graffiti off a men’s-room mirror, as it is watching him smash figures like Gus Gorilla, Artie the Alligator, or Nighty Knight to an oily pulp. There’s a backstory about how these creatures ever came to cause such mayhem; it involves the collusion of the whole town. But in “Willy’s Wonderland,” even a sinister conspiracy only adds to the kitsch. We’re watching Nicolas Cage destroy a bunch of giant cuddly monsters with his bare hands! The scariest thing about the movie is that it almost pretends that isn’t funny.
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