So long at the pizza parlor: A critical review of “Willy’s Wonderland” (2021)

Every now and again in cinema, there’s an idea that sells itself. In the case of “Willy’s Wonderland,” that sale goes like this: Nicolas Cage fights murderous animatronics over a dirty pinball machine. This is, in the parlance of cheap thrillers, an easy sell, assuming you can find the right audience.

Well, this blog is that audience. Seriously, you had me at “Nicolas Cage.” The murderous animatronics just sweeten the deal.

But finding an audience is not necessarily enough. Once located, they must be won over. Offbeat goofball thriller fans are not a bunch of pushovers (at least I hope we aren’t), so it was a natural that “Willy’s Wonderland” would be examined with a cautious and critical eye (by this blog at least). I don’t accept just any man vs. animatronic retro thriller, you understand. But within that lens, “Willy” appears surprisingly fine. Mechanically, it’s a solid and stylish film. However, unlike another movie I can (and will) mention, it feels like there’s something missing from this well-greased machine: something to say.

An energy drink-chugging drifter in a muscle car (Cage, natch) finds his vehicle in need of repair out in the middle of nowhere. A beef-jerky chewing mechanic offers to fix it for him. In exchange, all he has to do spend a night in an abandoned pizza parlor and maybe clean it up – the owner says it’ll be ready to open for patrons again any day now, just as soon as they can get the blood stains off the walls. It doesn’t take long for the drifter to encounter the real patrons of the parlor: the restaurant’s animatronic mascots, which apparently come to life after dark and kill anyone in the dining room. The drifter’s efforts to preserve himself until dawn are complicated by three things: the seeming complacency of the local authorities; a group of scrappy but clueless teens who are trying to burn the pizza parlor down; and his own unquenchable thirst for energy drinks and pinball.

If that seems like a lot of plot for me to cram into one of my little paragraphs, it is. But the movie itself is not shy about what it is, and so I feel no need to be coy either. The film’s intrigue is effectively and exclusively its concept, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

The good thing is no one is going to enter this film and leave feeling misled. It front-loads everything that it is, and delivers no more or less than that. The joy of watching “Willy’s Wonderland” is not observing its complex narrative unfold or encountering its evolving atmosphere. It’s to see Nic Cage punch some fuzz-covered robots, all drenched in a 1980s neon glow. The film does not lack for style. There’s an MTV speed to the editing, and a hyperrealistic haze around the photography and color palette, but even these elements feel like cogs in the concept rather than components reflecting or expanding on it.

Performances follow suit. The main character is Nicolas Cage. He has to be. He has no name and no dialogue, so we are left with the conclusion that this is the fate that has befallen an alternative Nicolas Cage somewhere in the universe. Accordingly, he’s perfect for the role. Could anyone else battle animatronics with such effortless acceptance, clean a pinball machine with such meditative grace, and adhere to so tight a schedule of energy drinks and muscle car repair? Probably not.

Supporting Cage are some goofy townsfolk, of whom Beth Grant as the cranky sheriff is the standout. If there is anything like an emotionally nuanced core to the film it’s her, portraying someone who is almost all duty with just a tiny sliver of shame. There are also the teens, who are mostly cannon fodder. That doesn’t matter too much, since they aren’t all that interesting. Emily Tosta as their fearless leader is probably the highlight, and not just cos she has the most screen time. Most of her action is to stare wide-eyed and confused at Cage, but I accept that. I would probably be doing the same thing in her situation.

In truth, everyone looks like they’re simply playing a part in the pageant. Of course the nameless drifter doesn’t have a name. He’s an archetype, an archetype called badass. Of course the teens are there to be cannon fodder. They aren’t characters. They’re boxes on a checklist labeled “slasher movie” waiting to be marked off. Even the monster robots follow suit. They are weird and twitchy, and sometimes even thrilling in a jumpy sort of way, but they are treated like routine boss battles in a video game. They show up, do their thing, then get plowed by Cage so the next one can take over when its turn comes up (and is it just me, or does Willy himself seem a little underpowered?).

And therein lies the problem with a film that is so completely its – admittedly hilarious and stylishly presented – concept. Not only is there no less to it; there’s no more to it either. There is no depth to “Willy’s Wonderland.” There is no philosophical musing or psychological suggestion to the film. I cannot blame the performances, since the actors are all fine in the underwritten roles and having fun with the overblown dialogue. I cannot blame the direction, by he-took-a-bit-of-a-break pulp director Kevin Lewis. There’s cool stuff there, even if it’s all retro neon decoration. I suppose I can blame the script, by first-timer G. O. Parsons, but it’s a wimpy accusation. I can’t tell you what the film fails to do, only what it lacks, and that can always be brushed away by a defense of “it was never supposed to be there.”

This movie would be easier to praise if we didn’t have “The Banana Splits Movie” already. Yes, I know, this blog didn’t exactly give it the greatest review, but we ended up defending it as one of the more flawed but interesting films of 2019. For better or worse, “Splits” is twice as ugly but three times as fascinating as “Willy.”

The comparison is not hard to make. Both films are comedic horror flicks about animatronic mascots run amok, both have a purposefully retro feel, and both are probably trying to capitalize on the success of the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise. But while “Willy” has superior production values, a brisker script and more thrills, “Splits” seemed like it had something to say. Maybe it failed at fully saying that… thing, whatever it was, but it felt purposeful, dammit. “Splits” will frustrate me, even disappoint me, more than “Willy” ever could precisely because it attempted to engage me with things to think about. That’s something “Willy” didn’t try to do.

While the message of “Splits” was debatable – I came up with something between a critique of nostalgic media and an absurdist drama – there was at least a debate. “Willy” doesn’t have a message, not even a moral message, one of the few boxes on that slasher checklist that’s absent. Some people are killed for having sex or placating the evil machines, but others are killed for admitting their mistakes or trying to do the right thing. It’s very uneven. Maybe there is a message, just a highly nihilistic one. Except a couple of decent people do survive, so that’s probably out too. Maybe the message is, if you’re in a comedy horror film, be Nicolas Cage? And if you’re not, just let Mr. Cage do his job?

Perhaps “Willy” actually does frustrate me, because I can imagine a more interesting film within it. It would require something a little quieter and sadder, but it wouldn’t have to lose any of its offbeat horror. My take: don’t drop the style, but do ditch the kids. Get your action horror kicks from the fights between Cage and the robots, playing up the one-on-one suspense and grotesque monster designs. Create more tension in the sheriff’s office, with her anticipating and dreading the ringing phone. Reveal the town’s sinister backstory in dream-like flashbacks, moody and murky, ala “Point Blank” or “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Create a doomy atmosphere of guilt and fate, of culpability, consequence and regret, stewing over the action. Wouldn’t that be a more interesting take on killer animatronics?

Shoot, what am I talking about? No one would finance that movie.

I’m spoiled is what I’m talking about. “Willy’s Wonderland” is an easy recommendation for any horror fan with a sense of humor and who can take a little splatter. It’s a slick and stylish production, where fun performances and comic flourishes abound, and I haven’t been more entertained by a new release so far this year. I have no one but myself to blame for expecting more from a movie sold as Nicolas Cage fights murderous animatronics over a dirty pinball machine. Still, if I’m a fool for expecting more, it’s a foolishness I’m happy to have.

Design of the times: A critical review of “Manhandled” (1949)

Some thrillers are more famous for how and when they show than what. For example, the 1955 pulp crime drama “Kiss Me Deadly” is remembered for its bleak atmosphere and foreshadowing neo-noir cinema, but also for its snapshot of mid-century Los Angeles architecture. Within 15 years of the film’s release, a chunk of the downtown LA it displayed had been torn down, but it’s still accessible on screen.

It seems surprising that 1949’s “Manhandled” is not thought of in a similar way. Late Art Deco style drips from every corner of the screen. It’s in the costumes, the sets, the props, even the glossy marble walls behind the characters as they absentmindedly wander around. It’s a period designer’s dream, maybe even an “American Gigolo” for the 1940s. It also features a truly novel cast. Lead actors Sterling Hayden and Dan Duryea made their share of film noirs, but co-star Dorothy Lamour was known for Crosby/Hope comedies, not thrillers. You also get Alan Napier – TV’s Batman’s Alfred – and Keye Luke – Charlie Chan’s number one son – in smaller roles.

So if “Manhandled” has stylish production values and an unusual cast. However, it’s usually just mentioned in passing, a footnote in the review of some other noir. Why is that? Probably because it’s a mediocre movie.

It starts moodily enough. “Manhandled” begins with a man getting a handle on his dreams (seriously, what’s up with that title? The poster is great, but it’s an absolute lie). He tells his psychiatrist he has a recurring nightmare about murdering his wife. Harmless enough, until she turns up dead. The husband is the number one suspect, but things get more complicated when his dead wife’s jewels go missing. The police, an insurance investigator and a private eye are all looking into the crimes, but some of them are more connected to things than they appear.

The plot of “Manhandled” is… haphazard. There’s just a lot going on. It’s not bad stuff, but did we really need all of it? The film opens like it’s going to be a psychological thriller about dreams and repression. That’s great. This blog loves weird old movies like that. But then it transforms into a routine heist drama about fencing jewels. That’s OK, I guess, but it leaves me wondering where all the psychological themes went. Then the movie decides to bring some of them back by cramming them into the climax in the midst of bad lighting. That’s not good. There is a hint of nonlinear storytelling. That could have been pleasantly surprising if it weren’t poorly executed by the script, and hindered by choppy and awkward editing.

It doesn’t help that the film completely abandons some of the elements and characters from the psychological thriller part of the movie. Even when the film is done with them, questions remain. If “Manhandled” was supposed to be a heist picture, why bother with the psychoanalytics at the start? What about those dreams? What happened to Alan Napier’s head? Either way, in the middle of a gritty crime film, do we really need a running gag about filling out paperwork for new brakes on a police car?

I actually have similar problems with Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low,” which feels like a psychological crime drama for the first half and a police procedural for the second. Two things make that film easier to forgive. The first is it had the sense to stick with the new genre once it switched its narrative focus, so the tone felt more consistent. The second is it’s an Akira Kurosawa film. “Manhandled” is not.

There are some nice touches, however. The direction, by co-writer Lewis Foster, is professional. The cinematography, by Ernest Laszlo (who worked on the aforementioned “Kiss Me Deadly”), is sometimes quite striking in a film noir sorta way. The performances are mostly what they are, although Duryea, as the low-rent and gum-smacking private detective, is charismatic and fun to watch. Ain’t he always though?

If you’re still reading, you might be here for the design. Art direction was by Lewis Creber and set decoration by Alfred Kegerris, both of whom had some mysteries and thrillers under their belts. Edith Head is listed as a costumer. That probably had something to do with it too. I didn’t even realize it was her until after the fact, when I had been so struck by the outfits I had to see who had worked on them. I’m not sure I can stress that enough. I had never seen a movie I where was captivated by Alan Napier’s pajamas or Dan Duryea’s shirt and tie before, but I have now. I just wish that movie itself had been a more consistent thriller.

Lazy summer: News July 2021

Today is the Fourth of July, and what could be more fitting than a news report from this blog? It’s the American paradox: a self-aggrandizing service to others, one that is both lazy and responsible. I’m keeping up with my schedule, even if I’m not saying much.

We’re going to close out our spate of retro thriller reviews with another film noir. After that, we’ve got a couple of contemporary films, including one released this very year. See? I told you we were being responsible. Or at least organized in our irresponsibility. That very new film sports a concept readers of this blog might find somewhat similiar to a film we championed not too long ago, if you’re after hints. There’s some game stuff coming up too. We have make good on a promise recently made.

Other than that, there’s not much else on my radar right now. I don’t have anything new in print to report (I did just update my virtual resume, but that was mostly tidying). There’s no upcoming book I’m excited about. As for games, not much, although I am cautiously investigating the re-release of “Doki Doki Literature Club.” And the closest thing to a movie I’m looking forward to is “Shazam 2,” of all things, which is not coming out until 2023.

Hopefully that all means I have to do some more research. There has to be some media I ought to be anticipating but just don’t know about yet. If you have any ideas, tonstant weader, let me know.

I guess ultimately the main purpose of today’s post is simply to restate this blog’s mission: To be accepted by the blogging community at large as a serious editorial outlet, an intellectual and critical website… that philosophizes about cheap thrillers, pulp fiction, violent video games and anime.

It could happen. It would be a Fourth of July miracle, but it could happen.