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Our years of hoarding arcade tickets have finally paid off. We were able to trade them all in for the ultimate prize: Willy's Wonderland, a movie in which a totally non-verbal Nicolas Cage beats the literal stuffing out of evil animatronics while spending a single night in a haunted family play center of Tartarus-like ball pits and flashy pinball machines.
There's nothing about that sentence we don't like and what's more, the film could be viewed as a historical time capsule that helps preserve the legacy of old school pizza parlors with horrific robot performers. These franchises were already on the decline in recent years, but their demise was sadly hastened by the COVID-19 health crisis.
"I've got two younger kids, who are five and seven, and they've gone to Chuck E. Cheese. But unfortunately with the pandemic, it's closed and now I hear it's out of business. That's really sad," Willy's director Kevin Lewis tells SYFY WIRE during a phone conversation. "But I just think that it's a retro throwback to old ShowBiz Pizzas that we grew up with, but I don't think we're gonna have anymore ... It's sad but true."
**SPOILER WARNING: The following contains mild spoilers for Willy's Wonderland.**
"I never played Five Nights at Freddy's. My son is 16 and he's a huge gamer, so he knows about it. But I respect Five Nights at Freddy's. It's huge, people love it," he says when we ask whether he was influenced by the cult series. "I grew up with the Banana Splits and thought it was interesting, turning it [on its head by] making them murderous animatronics. But you're right, I think there is a genre for this and if you type 'dark animatronics' into Google, you come up with all kinds of stuff: cosplay and tattoos."
He continues: "There have been animatronic movies and stories that have come before, but I definitely think that it can be a genre. You know what's cool? I think it helps everyone. I think people watch Willy's and they like it. They'll say, 'Hey, I wanna watch Banana Splits.' Or they watch Willy's and they'll be so pumped for Five Nights at Freddy's [the movie] when it comes out. We all help each other."
The pop and lock roster of Willy's mechanical — not to mention murderous — monsters are Siren Sara (Jessica Graves Davis), Cammy Chameleon (Taylor Towery), Gus Gorilla (Billy Bussey), Knighty Knight (Duke Jackson), Ozzie Ostrich (BJ Guyer), Artie Alligator (Christopher Bradley), Tito Turtle (Chris Schmidt Jr.), and, of course, the ringleader himself, Willy Weasel (Jiri Stanek).
"Hopefully they're gonna be in the horror lexicon," Lewis says. "That's what I always wanted. I wanted them to be in with all the great horror characters."
With such a gonzo premise at his disposal (courtesy of an original screenplay from actor-turned-writer G.O. Parsons), Lewis wanted to tap into his love for '80s horror and Sam Raimi, particularly the director's debut feature, The Evil Dead (1981), and its two sequels, Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992).
"Visually, he's incredible and he's got a great comic timing with his stuff," Lewis explains of Raimi. "You're laughing and then you're in horror. He shifts those emotions perfectly. I still don't think there's anyone like him. So for Willy's, I just felt like it needed an injection of this weirdness. You can't go and shoot this movie normally. We would set up shots and... I'd say, 'Hey, we're making a movie about Nic Cage vs. a 7-foot animatronic weasel. We can't go far enough.' And that was really fun because it opened the floodgates."
To that end, Cage's character — simply known as "The Janitor" — was molded in the same vein of iconic Evil Dead protagonist, Ash Williams (famously played by Bruce Campbell). Unlike Ash, however, The Janitor has absolutely no dialogue. Cage and Lewis were inspired by the silent era of filmmaking, as well as cinema's men of few to no words such as Charles Bronson's Harmonica (Once Upon a Time in the West), Mads Mikkelsen's One-Eye (Valhalla Rising), and Ryan Gosling's The Driver (Drive).
"Nic's the coolest because he's a genre unto himself and so, I think he really liked the project because of not speaking," Lewis says. "It's a challenge. I think a lot of other actors would be nervous ... He's just a great guy, works so hard, and really cared about the movie. He had a passion for it."
But being quiet doesn't mean The Janitor isn't a total badass. As the character of Liv (Emily Tosta) remarks in the trailer, "He's not trapped in here with [the animatronics], they're trapped in here with him!" When the taciturn hero gets ticked off, you better watch out for what Lewis calls "Cage Rage." He director goes on to say that Cage would count down the number of enemies left on set. "When he would take out the animatronics, he'd be like, 'One down, seven to go.'"
The production had to be extra careful with the Willy's costumes because there was only one of each. "Once Nic destroyed it, it's over," Lewis says. Put another way, gears and hydraulic fluid flow just as freely as blood and viscera during this crazy rollercoaster ride. Nevertheless, that idea of the protagonist losing control when provoked by Willy and his band of pizza-serving hellspawn also helped inform Dave Newbert's cinematography.
"We talked about punk rock and a rave at two in the morning. I'm such a square and I've never done any drugs, but I wanted this to be like an LSD trip," the director recalls. "We would shoot at 18 frames per second, shake the camera, and have lens flares flying. I love lens flares. Ours were organic; we did them all there on the set. We just wanted a cool, different look for the movie that you haven't seen."
According to the filmmaker, Cage originally had one line in the script right before his final confrontation with Willy. In the end, however, the idea was axed, but Lewis decided to subvert audience expectations by using a slight camera movement to psych up audiences for a non-existent zinger.
"We always worked on it, trying different things. Going back to Evil Dead or something, I knew that it had to be an iconic line. Because if the guy's not gonna speak throughout the whole movie and he says one line, it's gotta be good," Lewis continues. "Is it something like a 'groovy'? Something Bruce would do? What is it? We would struggle with that and when we were in pre-production and talked to Nic, [we decided on] no lines. What's kind of fun is when he comes out of the kitchen, I do a push-in on the camera and I'm like, 'Here it is, folks. Here's the line.' And he doesn't say it.'"
When we float the idea of getting a Janitor/Ash team-up, Lewis suddenly transforms into an excited kid. "Wouldn't that be sweet?" he says. "Oh my god, that'd be awesome."
That's just wishful thinking right now, but discussions about a sequel are actively underway.
"I'd love to see a sequel if the movie gods permit it... What's exciting is that there's a lot of people wanting a sequel," Lewis reveals. "The producers have talked about a sequel and I think there's room for one. I think continuing the adventures of The Janitor... I'd wanna see that movie. I think it'd be great. We made a really cool and interesting new character for cinema, and that's just awesome."
If a second movie is made, don't expect a retread of the '80s/Evil Dead influences.
"I was thinking more of Mad Max-style. I still like the '80s, but we did it, so with sequels, you always gotta up the ante," Lewis teases. "But then there's the challenge of taking on too much, so there'd have to be a fine line, but there are so many ways we could go. I've got some really good ideas, I think. I know G.O. has an idea for the sequel. We've talked about it briefly... I know we could come up with something fantastic."
Now playing in select theaters, Willy's Wonderland is also available to rent or purchase via digital and on-demand. Beth Grant, Emily Tosta, Ric Reitz, and Chris Warner co-star alongside Cage.