The ‘uncanny valley’, a term coined by Professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, refers to the phenomenon of encountering an entity, usually artificially created, that straddles the boundaries of humanity, and the subsequent unease it induces. The colorful animatronic antagonists of Willy’s Wonderland (2021), directed by Kevin Lewis, are already horrifying by principle alone- and that’s before they start murdering people.
The plot centers around a nameless drifter (Nicholas Cage) who after breaking down in the rundown town of Hayesville, Ohio and in exchange for repairs, takes a job as the night janitor of the unfortunately named and abandoned Willy’s Wonderland restaurant. However, what appears to be a simple task becomes a struggle for survival as he is preyed upon by the anthropomorphic denizens, possessed by the spirits of a group of notorious serial killers, who are intent on his blood. Meanwhile, an intrepid group of local teens, led by Liv (Emily Tosta) plot to break into the establishment and save him. However, Cage’s character proves to more than a match for them. As one character aptly puts it; ‘He’s not trapped in there with them- they’re trapped in there with him.’
Despite not uttering a single word throughout the film’s entire runtime, Nicholas Cage’s character dominates the film, imbued with his trademark brand of energetic lunacy. A good portion of the film’s comedy derives from his complete apathy towards his fate, preferring to wind down the long hours by playing pinball and swilling down soda, interspersed with intermittent bursts of brutal violence as he takes down his robotic attackers one by one. That’s not to say that the animatronics aren’t entertaining- special note goes to Tito Turtle, Siren Sara (who provides a few genuinely terrifying moments) and the eponymous Weasel himself.
Unfortunately, they’re more developed than some of the human characters in the film, including Liv’s friends, who are a clique of walking high school cliches exist in the film just to be picked off as per horror movie law. There is a clear missed opportunity to develop their characters more, in particular Kathy (Caylee Cowan), before she devolves into the classic horror movie sacrificial maiden, doomed by her libido. However Tosta and Cage shine the brightest among this host of stars, helping to balance out the flimsy plot.
Overall, Willy’s Wonderland is a gleefully anarchic throwback to classic eighties schlock like Meet the Feebles (1989), Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), Chopping Mall (1986) and the Puppet Master film series. It revels in the cheesiness of its premise and doesn’t pretend to be anything more. It infuses it with modern, taking a few clear inspirations from the popular horror video game franchise Five Night’s at Freddy’s to produce a bloody and entertaining film.