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'Willy's Wonderland' Review | Kevin Lewis' effectively campy thrill ride has "Evil Dead" DNA

If you're going to make something crazy yet cool on film, Nic Cage should be the first call you make to star in it.
Credit: Screen Media Films

ST. LOUIS — Twenty minutes into "Willy's Wonderland," Nicolas Cage punches an animatronic weasel in the face. Are you in or out? Do I have your attention?

Some films just want to have a good time in your head for 90 minutes, turning your mind off and allowing the fun factory to take hold for a little while. A good arthouse film is a delight, but when a bunch of geeks get together and are allowed to create something that is both consumer-friendly and unique to the genre, that's an experience. Kevin Lewis' "Willy's Wonderland" is an experience unlike any other.

File this under the movies that couldn't be made this particular way by another cast and crew. similar to Eshom and Ian Nelms' "Fatman." That was a film that wore its fanboy heart on its sleeve and was proud of it. Lewis' work here is right there in the action-horror comfort zone of entertainment. If you can make an 89 minute film that doesn't have an ounce of fat yet gives you all the comfort and joy in the world, make a note. "Willy's Wonderland" is something you can only dream up after midnight, when it's dark and the crazies come out to play.

G.O. Parson's script indeed has a one-track mind, and I was there for it. A man with no name (Nic Cage, in full movie star-throttle mode) aggressively drives his muscle car across a lonely road when his tires suddenly get slashed. In a small town that looks like bad news spread across avocado toast that conveniently doesn't accept credit cards, he finds himself taking some random janitor work at a shutdown Chuck E. Cheese-type restaurant in order to pay off his car repairs. "Survive the night and your car will be waiting right here for you," Tex Macadoo, the shady owner of the establishment, tells our anti-hero as the movie breathes only its tenth minute of life.

I use the term "anti-hero" because Cage doesn't allow us to place his drifter into an easy category of good, bad, or straight-up wicked. If you want to make something crazy yet cool at the movies, Cage should be your first call. His silent, stoic "guy in the wrong place at the wrong time" plays directly into Lewis' favor here, allowing Parsons' plot to roll over us just as it is hitting the Janitor, which is the official name the lead gets on IMDB. We are as confused as he is when the seemingly lifeless animals start to move as he cleans the tables and glass, confirming a demonic past that the building holds.

A group of heroic teenagers (Emily Tosta shines the brightest here) show up. Lots of energy drinks are consumed by Cage. More animatronics start moving and trying to kill people. There's lots of blood and gore, and more screams than words as the body count (both robotic and fleshy) start to pile up.

And believe me when I tell the man with no name here also has nothing to say. Cage says zero words here, showing off his movie star swagger. As I told Lewis in our interview (which will publish later this week), there aren't many actors/movie stars who could pull this role off like he does without an ounce of spoken word. From the moment he stares down the trucker who talks too much to the final glare at the evil Willy, we completely buy into what Cage and company are serving up. It takes a certain level of bravado to be able to pull something as campy and B-movie flair-happy as this one off, and especially make it sing like Lewis does in less than 90 minutes.

David Newbert's cinematography syncs up well with Emoi's score, and I wanted to step into Molly Coffee's production design. This movie plays out like a video game inside an old arcade coming to life, and the crew leans into it.

I love the movies that thrill us without asking for too much of our time. Lewis had this entire film planned-shot for shot, reel for reel-and it shows an intent to entertain. "Willy's Wonderland" knows exactly what it is and that's the best part. This isn't intended for the Kodiak Theater crowd. The glitz and glamour of trophy collecting wouldn't equate to Cage driving his fist through a demonic Five Nights at Freddy's-looking dinosaur/gator hybrid. You're living in a different world when the geeks are let out to play. This is "Evil Dead" meets "Goonies" with a little "Con Air" thrown in for good measure. But instead of John Malkovich putting a gun to a stuffed bunny's head on an airplane, the bunny just comes to life in this new film, Lewis' eighth feature.

Bottom Line: Turn your brain off, kick the feet up, and allow the nerdy old school horror film fan to be entertained. It's like Kevin Lewis' "Willy's Wonderland" walked directly out of the 80's and into my living room.

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