Story Pile: Willy’s Wonderland

Hey, you heard about the Nicolas Cage Five Nights at Freddies knockoff movie that was made in a single month? Have you heard it’s good?

Spoiler Warning of course, I’m going to discuss things in this movie. But also, Content Warning! This is a movie with a lot of your typical schlock tropes, there’s a needless sex scene where you Don’t Get To See Anything, there’s a lot of splashy, gory, wet violence against angry animatronics.

A stranger arrives in town! Car trouble! Can’t afford to fix it! But he can work in the obviously haunted as hell town landmark to pay for it by morning! Well, time to walk into the creepy murder house and work out what about this town is darkly messed up right? Because this guy is now trapped in the Cursed As Hell building, the other story – of a group of plucky teens wanting to deal with the Double Heck Murder Haunted House of their town – intersects with his. People get stuck in a closed room as the ghosts of this town pick off these people one at a time!

The whole thing is set up exactly as you expect, and let’s be clear: There are surprises in this movie, but the surprises are mixed in amongst the least surprising structure. This is a Z-list slasher movie about watching a bunch of thinly-developed teenagers getting murdered in a bunch of ways by evil haunted animatronics, and also Nicolas Cage is there.

Oh and also, ACAB.

Just as an experience of watching this kind of movie, this is a fun one. Rather than try to key up a lot of intense fear and horror, the movie shows you people’s tension, their horror, but it stops short of really trying to make you feel it. Because this is a goofy movie and it knows it and it’s having fun doing slasher kills and playing little kid’s music in a threatening way.

I hear a lot of complaints about horror movies where the characters do things that don’t make sense in order to create situations of maximal tension. This is a complaint I often feel is overblown, where the more good horror movies I see the more often, people are operating on entirely reasonable information or failing to appreciate the danger they’re in. The question of the soundness of a horror movie isn’t ‘do they do stupid stuff,’ it’s ‘do the actions people take make sense?’ Like, do two people, while extremely high, isolate themselves?


They do.

It does make sense at the time: Because they’re not taking this thing seriously and don’t think things are as bad as the others do. And that’s kinda the heart of this whole genre of the story, which is about incorrect assumptions about the reality of the story you’re stuck in.

The whole thing is extremely American, incidentally. I obviously don’t how the rest of the world feels about it, but a kid’s eatery with incessant, repeating, overwhelming singing from animatronics feels very American to me, as does the way that you can be in a town and still in the middle of nowhere, or the way that you might show up in some small town and find the whole thing is basically a pagan cult built around a cursed organ of capitalism.

It’s interesting because normally, in my experience, curses, haunts like this, they tend to be built around the idea of the aged, of the ancient. Ghosts of the restless dead, tales of ancient crimes, there’s time necessary to a ghost, surely. But the scale of time here is so brief, so near — Willy’s Wonderland is a twenty year old sin, a thing from the early 00s that persists on long enough that one of its victims grew up into an adult.

These props are very physical – I’m sure there’s some computer graphics going on, just because by default, CG is cheaper than physical props, but the ways that Nicolas Cage interacts with these things has such a physicality to it. When he shoves it, bits of it move that he didn’t touch because of the flow throug of an elaborate mechanical system. Is the whole movie ‘Nicolas Cage murders disturbing puppets?’ probably not. But it feels like it.

It’s hard to not think about videogames watching Willy’s Wonderland. It’s hard to look at the long, slow, methodical monstages of cleaning a Pinball machine and not think in terms of games that match that same gameplay pattern. The montage is not doing something cool, it’s not to make you feel pumped up or cool, it’s clearing out a long, slow methodical experience of executing on something thoroughly. It’s often that the cleaning is setting up a combat arena that the player – er, that is the Janitor – then executes on. There’s also the combat arena, the use of breaks to divide the story into levels, and the ‘boss fight’ nature of things.

It creates another dimension to the story the teenagers are involved in. It’s not just that they fell into a haunted house with evil monsters in it. It’s that they fell into a videogame experience, in the fight between a player character who’s only going to succeed and the villainous force he only meaningfully exists to oppose. This is what it’s like to be dropped into a videogame between the protagonist and the villain and know that you have to hope the protagonist is going to line up with you, and sometimes he doesn’t and that’s just… oh well. In a lot of ways the story kicks you around to keep you from being on your feet for long.

Ultimately, Willy’s Wonderland is a pure movie in the degree to which it’s having fun with its dumb idea, and executing on it flawlessly. You get to see things cleaned up, you get to see things beaten down, you get to see terrible monsters do terrible monster kills, you will see some cleavage in an extremely unpleasant way, and you will be reminded that all the layers of power in systems that build around capitalism will put on a sad face emoji while they literally sacrifice people’s lives to the ongoing sense of order. All cops are bastards, and evil is worth fighting.