Thoughts on “Willy’s Wonderland”

This movie’s premise is pretty much the same as “Five Nights at Freddy’s”, except that it takes place over one night and the way for our hapless “victim” to deal with the animatronics isn’t to avoid them but instead to completely wipe them out.  Nicholas Cage stars as an incredibly silent drifter — as far as I can recall, he doesn’t say a word in the entire movie, which is almost certainly intentional — who is driving his Mustang down a road when he hits some caltrops that ruin all of his tires.  Brought into town by the two truck operator/mechanic, he is told that he has to pay cash in advance for repairs and that if he doesn’t have the money on him there’s no way for him to get it (the bank machine is out of order on account of the town not having Internet).  At the same time, a young teenage girl is arrested by the sheriff — who is also her legal guardian — for trying to burn down the Chuck E. Cheese-styled restaurant called “Willy’s Wonderland”.  They pass a meaningful glance as he drives by that means absolutely nothing in the end.  Anyway, the drifter is told that he can work off his debt by cleaning up “Willy’s Wonderland” for one night, at which point he’ll get his car back and can leave.  As it turns out, to the drifter’s seeming complete lack of surprise the animatronics come to live and seem to be inhabited by a group of Satan worshippers who were doing terrible things before the townsfolk caught on and were coming after them, at which point they performed a ritual to place their souls in the animatronics and continue their murderous ways, forcing the restaurant to be shut down.  We find out later that after it was shut down they started wandering into town to kill people, so the townsfolk made a deal with them to provide victims for them so that they could “eat”, in exchange for them leaving the townsfolk alone.  The drifter is thus our latest victim and must try to survive the night.  Of course, he’s not at all any kind of helpless victim, as the animatronics soon discover, turning this into more of an action-horror than a stalking-horror movie.

This movie cannot be anything else other than a parody.  The main character is far too taciturn and far too strong to be taken at all seriously, and they invoke other tropes — like two characters going off to have sex when they know that evil animatronics are around trying to kill people — in a way that we simply cannot take seriously.  But the flaw in this movie is that while the structure is that of a parody they don’t seem to really do all that much parodying.  The movie isn’t all that funny, and so it doesn’t work as a humourous type of parody.  It’s over-the-top, but not in a funny way.  Even worse is that while this has to be parody it isn’t really made clear what they are exactly parodying.  The main character is told by the owner of the restaurant to take frequent breaks.  The main character does this, stopping to drink some soft drink that he brought with him and play the “Willy’s Wonderland” pinball game.  This is consistent throughout the entire movie.  In fact, he does this at one point when the teenage girl — who was planning to burn it down but goes inside to get him out — is being threatened by one of the animatronics.  He bursts in, brandishes his weapons, prepares to face it and … his watch goes off and he goes on break.  Given how prominent this idea was, we really wanted an explanation at the end for why he does that, and the movie never bothers to do that.  Also, he doesn’t seem at all surprised when the animatronics first attack him, and even seems to be expecting it, and yet the movie never gives an indication for why he might be expecting it, or what his deal is.  There is a comment at some point that the animatronics are locked in with him, but there’s no explanation for why he’s there other than by random chance.  The best explanation for him — especially given that he drives off with the teenage girl at the end to presumably do other meaningful things — is that he is some kind of evil/demon hunter and he arranged somehow to show up here to eliminate this threat.  But the movie doesn’t in any way explain any of that or even actually hint at that beyond what the movie has as its inherent structure.

I guessed during the movie that what was happening was that the owner of the restaurant wanted the deal ended and had somehow heard of this guy and brought him in explicitly to clear the evil out so he could have his restaurant back.  This only became more reasonable when we find out that the sheriff is not someone merely tolerating the situation because it’s the best they could do but was far more active in the original deal (the teenage girl claims that the owner made the deal, but this is refuted later in the movie when we see what actually happened).  And yet at the end while the owner says that maybe he’ll reopen it he is blown up by — and with, it seems — the last animatronic in a way that it seems like we’re supposed to see as him getting his due, and given the structure of the deal he doesn’t seem that bad, especially compared to the sheriff.  Even worse is that this, again, makes his admonishment to the drifter to take breaks that the drifter obsessively sticks to nonsensical and meaningless.

There is something to be said for not spelling everything out, but the movie here doesn’t really make clear what it’s trying to do.  You could make that work in a standard slasher movie, and they could make it work if they didn’t draw so much attention to these elements, but they make a big deal out of these elements and yet don’t integrate them or pay them off in any way, which is disappointing.

That being said, this is another movie that proves the importance of pacing.  The movie moves us from scene to scene and in particular from action scene to action scene quite well and so it doesn’t give us time to get bored.  It’s deliberate unwillingness to explain anything also helps with this, as we don’t get bogged down with useless exposition.  So it moves well and so, well, manages to fill an hour and a half of screen time in a relatively entertaining way.

With a little bit of explanation to tie the parody together at the end, this could have been a really good movie.  All of the elements are there for them to pull something cool together at the end without having to add too much more explanation or exposition at the end.  If he had simply spoke for the first time to explain this, even in a taciturn way, that would have been a dramatic moment and revelation that would have worked really well.  But they didn’t do that, and so pacing is all we have here.  I think I’ll put it in the box to maybe rewatch at some point, but it could have gone into my closet to rewatch fairly regularly if they had just paid off and emphasized the parody a bit more.

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