Motherly

The limits of motherly love are tested in this taut thriller that struggles to leave a lasting impact.

Kate (Lora Burke) and her daughter Beth live alone in an isolated farmhouse in the woods, but when Kate slowly begins to suspect that something sinister is happening, her motherly instincts are put to the test.

With shooting unfinished in March 2020 due to Canadian lockdown measures to combat Covid-19, despite the best collaborative efforts of the cast and crew, Motherly has, like many productions recently, endured a long, drawn-out struggle from production to having the film in front of audiences. In the case of Motherly, the restrictions and hasty initial shooting process bonded cast and crew in a way that feels visible in the final product. There is a sense of cohesion here, with all performances on the same page and a steady hand in creating moments of threat.

In some ways, it is this measured, even flow that highlights some of the film’s flaws, with the film layering on elements that are treated as revelatory, but are readable from the earliest moments. That ability to read the plot does make it very difficult to wring a great deal of tension out of proceedings, relying increasingly on poor decision making and character trait switching to drive the narrative. The action feels restrained, with a desire to ratchet things up that it never quite takes to that upper level.

The film has a great grasp on its location, repeatedly returning to sweep the house as events are revisited and reconceptualised. Early on, when Beth (Tessa Kozma) nonchalantly comments that the house is haunted, it is an early indicator of the underlying tensions the film wishes to explore. Within the house, simple household spills and everyday activities take on a sinister edge with the remoteness of the house sealing them off from the wider world. At a lean 80 minutes, the film has exactly the right amount of story for its runtime and while some developments feel predictable, this at least means there are threads to be pulled early on, rather than using the move of films desperate to invoke a twist by suddenly conjuring unseen elements in the closing minutes.

The strength lies in the time given over to the characters, allowing the performers to flesh them out and really situate themselves within the pain of all the characters. Lora Burke (Lifechanger, For The Sake Of Vicious) is in typically great form but the shining moments of the performance are those sections in which the film threatens to come off the rails a little more and turns the volume up. Burke and Kozma make for an excellent paring, with their mother and daughter duo at odds from the outset, constantly butting heads and locked in a cycle of miscommunication that leaves both alienated. Kozma is excellent as Beth, bringing a spiky quality to her interactions with Burke. As the film progresses and she is given more to do, she ably manages to sustain that early promise.

As a take on the home invasion thriller with a focus on relationships, Motherly will undoubtedly tick some boxes. Those yearning for something with a little more energy may be left wanting but it is, nonetheless, a diverting and reasonably entertaining watch with some great performances.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Motherly is available in the USA On Demand and Digital November 16, 2021 through The Horror Collective.

BFI London Film Festival 2021: Bull

Bull is an impressive and assured British horror-thriller that makes the most of every well-tuned element.

Synopsis: Bull mysteriously returns home after a 10 year absence to seek revenge on those who double crossed him all those years ago.

If you are looking to make a gritty British revenge film based around the mechanics of a shady family, the choice of a lead role is obvious. Neil Maskell is just so good at that deadpan humour-laced hardman character, able to switch on and off the intensity to excellent effect. Bull is no exception and he is on top form as the titular character, given the punchy one-liners that raise a smile as much as the explosions of rage make you sit back a little further in your seat. It is hard to imagine the line ‘spin it like you’re trying to kill us’ delivered by anyone else as effectively but this is a film that knows its strength lies in that mode of delivery and has the confidence in the material. Glimpses of underlying sensitivity reserved mainly for his son, Aidan (Henri Charles) allows the pace of the film to slow occasionally without disrupting too much flow.

The supporting cast is great too, with David Hayman, in particular, dripping with menace as Norm, the patriarch of the family Bull has fallen foul of. There is a constant unease throughout with flashbacks providing context as the narrative progresses. Director-writer Paul Andrew Williams keeps everything balanced on a knife-edge and the whole film carries the air of a slow-burning fuse. You are never quite comfortable within scenes, unsure if an encounter will result in violence or another uneasy, temporary truce. The focus on Bull and Norm for the most part does mean you are left with other supporting characters that are perhaps lacking in much unique development (especially the female characters), but everyone is ultimately delivering exactly what they need to.

The violence, when it occurs is brutal and unflinching but still carries those flashes of pitch-black humour. The plot beats move from relatively dialogue-heavy, even domestically-focused (although steeped in tension and bad feeling) to explosive moments, keeping the film functioning as confrontationally as possible. You can see traces of Williams’ previous works like The Cottage where more comic violence is the focal point, as well as his more gentle television work like A Confession, permitting a few more contemplative pauses. Above all, Bull is assured in its direction, refusing to answer questions for much of the runtime, preferring to pepper in flashbacks to bring focus to current relationships and situations. Some will undoubtedly find some of the later handling a tad clumsy, but it still revels enough in its confidence that it is difficult to not be swept along with it.

Using the funfair location for some of the action, including using the attractions as integral parts of the narrative feels inspired, even if some of these elements may well lose people. A scene set on a waltzer ride is notable for its technical proficiency as well as an example of the film enjoying stretching outside of its expected genre trappings. That experimentation with form is something that sets this apart, again destabilising what you believe you are watching as it progresses. The neon lights in contrast to the other more grey, everyday locations lend the location a sense of otherworldliness and two worlds conflicting with one another.

On the surface, Bull is the kind of thriller we have all seen before, but there is a dark playfulness at work here that makes it stand out above them, resulting in a conclusion that stands to split audience opinion, but makes the film all the more memorable for it.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Bull played as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021 and will be released in UK cinemas by Signature Entertainment on November 5th.

Synonymous With

An achingly beautiful love letter to the ‘other’.

Synopsis: A student’s increasingly intimate line of questioning causes his interview with a local horror host to take a vulnerable turn.

Told through a mixture of photo collage, archive clips and interview segments, Synonymous With is built on the conversations between largely unseen interviewer Jackson Weil (Thom Hilton) and former public access television host Syn (Remy Germinario). As the first Halloween without Syn’s TVKTV13 show Synister Synema with Myster Synonymous looms, a local film student looks to uncover more about the man behind the persona.

At only 12 minutes long, Synonymous With contains a wealth of emotive material, wearing its fondness for horror on its sleeve as well as delving into why those in the LGBTQ+ community and others who find themselves outside of the ‘norm’ discover solace in horror. Early in the film, Syn draws attention to the idea that popular people didn’t ‘need’ his public access channel, but those who found it were able to be ‘unknown, together’ in one of the film’s most touching sentiments. That sense of being an outsider, especially in a queer context and finding some kind of communal experience is one the film handles with particular skill and empathy.

Collaged photos deliver a definite sense of space, drawing on that wonderful small town Halloween feel of crunchy leaves, chilly weather and quirky decorations. The camera initially feels static, situating Syn as small, dwarfed by his persona, the world and the horror posters surrounding him. The increasing fluidity of the camera starts to allow him more space in which he is the central figure and focus of the attention. This stylistic shift assists in the building of their rapport but with a largely unspoken tension bubbling. Germinario makes for a charming screen presence, wearing vulnerability, quiet anger and a range of other emotions as the interviews progress. As the pair continue to converse, that uncomfortable early, almost parasocial intimacy begins to unwind. Their relationship is delicately built, readdressing boundaries and reframing roles in a way that is difficult not to be swept along with.

The crafting of the Synister Synema segments is excellent, with a playful camp at its centre in both the props, staging and Syn’s commentary. There is an authenticity in that low budget presentation of people being left to create for themselves and others like them, rather than trying to approach the mainstream. As much as this functions as an ode to the horror genre and its hosts, there is also a deeply held affection for the spaces that allow them to be unpolished and ungoverned, even if it is that very quality that means they may disappear without trace. That liminality of not knowing who (if anyone) is watching and if it is important to them is a deeply affecting idea.

I don’t mind saying that I have cried every single time I have watched this quiet, delicate film. The disarming vulnerability and striking beauty of finding light in darkness is a truly romantic one: a meditation on the power of being seen.

You can now watch Synonymous With on Vimeo.

Grimmfest: We’re All Going To The World’s Fair

Jane Schoenbrun’s portrait of a life lived online is an occasionally challenging watch that will hold some at arm’s length.

Synopsis: “I want to go to the World’s Fair. I want to go to the World’s Fair. I want to go to the World’s Fair.” Say it three times into your computer camera. Prick your finger, draw some blood and smear it on the screen. Now press play on the video. They say that once you’ve seen it, the changes begin… In a small town, a shy and isolated teenage girl becomes immersed in an online role-playing game.

The internet and more specifically social media has never been more present in our lives, allowing connection across vast spaces and time zones. Many films seek to imbed this sensation of being online into the very fabric of the narrative, resulting in ‘screen life’ efforts that spin off from found footage films in many ways. Turning a laptop screen into a storytelling device presents obstacles, which World’s Fair alternates between embracing these restrictions and removing itself from them entirely. The result is an immersive, disquieting experience that truly echoes the ebb and flow of being online, indulging in the kind of myth building that comes from only showing glimpses of the truth.

Casey (Anna Cobb) lives a solitary existence and one that revolves around her device and an online world that removes her from her place at home. Becoming involved with an online game that appears to hold the key to a fascinating transformation, Casey indulges in the challenge, but there is something more sinister under the surface.

The film’s flirtation with screen life storytelling produces something far more ethereal, with the physical and digital worlds constantly intersecting and overlapping with one another. The first time we meet Casey, she is taking part in the challenge – a muted but intricately detailed sequence of events that involves watching a video. However, that ritual soon spills into reality as she has to contribute blood, traversing the gap between digital and physical, new and old forms.

As I approach my mid-thirties, I’m keenly aware that the effect of this film on me may not be as potent as it will be for younger viewers, more attuned to the consumption of online media and the forms it presents. A sequence in which Casey attempts to settle herself to sleep using an ASMR video plays out across a projector becomes a portrayal of a craving for distant intimacy. Using the video as a source of comfort and as a coping mechanism draws Casey out of her room, but into a different, secluded space.

Anna Cobb occupies a huge amount of the screen time and it is to her credit that she delivers such a demanding performance when Casey herself can be such a slippery character. She is sensitive, yet petulant at times, vulnerable but forthright and Cobb manages to portray all of these nuances incredibly well. Her command of the screen is something that is sure to draw in those who may feel alienated by the very online, somewhat obscure direction the film takes at times. Her interactions with JLB (Michael J Rogers) as he implores her to ‘keep making videos so I know you’re still OK’ add a sinister thread, but also highlight how malleable and fleeting internet interactions can be – a deleted account and someone is entirely erased.

As Casey’s journey to the World’s Fair continues, the film manages to expertly evoke the near-constant stream of content that the internet has to offer, lacing sections with menace and a concern about what is about to be witnessed. This is a film that so infrequently turns up the volume or makes anything fully flesh, such is its careful ambiguity, that when it does, it hits far stronger. Schoenbrun allows things to play out almost in real-time, refusing to be rushed or play by the usual rules. As the tension builds, she is content to allow it to play out, constantly denying the viewer an ‘out’ or full understanding.

While some will ultimately feel too alienated from this to really appreciate it, the moments of ritual, emphasis on communication and well-articulated uncanny moments, We’re All Going To The World’s Fair feels like a very special film.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Fantastic Fest 2021: She Will

While not every moment hits the mark in this operatic horror, the sections where all the components gel make this a formidable feature debut for Charlotte Colbert.

Synopsis: After a double mastectomy, actress Veronica Ghent travels to a remote place in Scotland in order to recuperate. However, the land around the retreat radiates with a dark power that will ultimately help liberate her from a traumatic past.

Our first introduction to actress Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige) is a difficult one, at best. She is somewhat prickly towards her nurse Desi (Kota Eberhardt) and despite the immense pain she finds herself in, still insists on wearing her prosthetics, even when warned that it is too soon. Krige plays her as stern, but quickly that exterior gives way to a physical and emotional vulnerability. Krige and Eberhardt’s chemistry allows the relationship to flourish into something deeper than nurse and patient, becoming sisterly and even motherly at turns. Eberhardt ably matches Krige’s gravitas, but allows Desi to bring a softer side out of the rather more spiky Veronica.

There are times within She Will that the visuals dominate, resulting in the kind of absorbing, dreamy horror that adds a potent atmosphere. However, this focus on the visual and a tendency towards more theatrical performances in some segments does mean the dialogue does occasionally become a little clunky and that will undoubtedly alienate some. A few of the quirkier happenings feel somewhat forced, not adding much to either the tone or plot, which is a shame when all the other themes converge in a way that lends the film its power. The surreal imagery, when threaded through the narrative works far better than the throwaway, off-kilter elements.

She Will, like its central figure, is at its best when fully realised and in control. Colbert’s roaming character not only enters rooms with characters, but invades their space. Initially these choices feel odd, but as the rest of the film leans into its flowing imagery, this becomes far more cohesive, satisfactory and injects further energy. The film balances the way that the woods appear sinister as well as beautiful – a force that is not fully understood, but not necessarily harmful. At one point there is a reference to the wind sounding like whispers, a suggestion that the earth itself is offering solace and power.

The film’s treatment of trauma is stand out. While a growing number of films tackling the fall out from trauma have tended to take a more nihilistic tone in terms of the potential for recovery, She Will, as its title suggests places the agency with Veronica and her potential for growth. While these more confronting portrayals are necessary and powerful, it is somewhat refreshing to see a film in which a woman who is on the path to being consumed by her trauma uses it to turn the tables and become a consumer, wrestling back a level of control over her life and body. Like many films this year, this is coupled with a desire to reconnect with the earth and uses the location as an agent for that self-discovery. The imagery is beautiful, even when it also threatens, switching between the two modes in a way that becomes a flow, rather than a clash.

The confidence in creating a film that so fully realises itself and central characters in a debut suggests excellent work to come from Charlotte Colbert. Stay through the credits for a charming cover of The Killing Moon too.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

She Will screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Kratt

This review of Kratt is a guest post from Keri of Warped Perspective. You can check out more of her excellent work by visiting the Warped Perspective webpage.

A gentle kind of mayhem reigns in Kratt (2020), a film blending traditional Estonian folklore with a generation gap comedy. Its brand of humour varies from oblique to very direct and, shall we say, universal, but you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. It would be a lie to say all of this makes complete sense, but in any case, it is charming more often than it’s not.

After a brief piece of historical contextualisation – we see way back in 1895 a disgruntled Count, his ruined manor house and an impish figure demanding ‘work’ – we’re brought back up to date, meeting our key characters. Two screen-obsessed kids, Mia (Nora Merivoo) and younger brother Kevin (Harri Merivoo) are being left out in the sticks with Grandma (Mari Lill) whilst their parents head off on a retreat; their phones are being confiscated, too. The expected protestations take place and both children struggle with the new rules, but they take more of an interest in Grandma when she tells them a certain bedtime story.

She describes how to build a ‘kratt’ – a creature assembled out of whatever household parts you can muster, which will obey its makers in return for a few drops of blood and a soul. This story links the family back to the historical mayhem we’ve already seen; when Mia and Kevin hear about the mystery of a grimoire which contains the specific instructions for how to make this mythical creature, they know they have something to do which is more interesting than content creation (although they do wish they could use Google Translate to help). It’s hopefully not a spoiler to discuss the fact that yes, they find the grimoire, and no, things don’t go quite to plan.

Meanwhile, there’s a concurrent plot line which takes in local politics, environmental concerns and conservation issues: people in the local area have been mobilising to try and protect a supposedly sacred grove of trees which has been selected for timber. The logger, whose livelihood depends on getting this job done, complains to the local governor, who espies an opportunity to shore up his own career by getting involved with the whole situation. His involvement does, by the by, bring him into contact with the kratt, leading to some of the film’s most overtly funny scenes.

For the most part however, Kratt is a fairly gentle family comedy, very eccentric and not a little meandering. It could probably stand to lose ten or fifteen minutes of runtime, and in some respects, it gets a little muddled – though this could be as a result of being a total outsider to the folklore. In some respects, Kratt has similarities to a lot of the coming-of-age, Stand By Me -style films, with kids working together, getting up to mischief and into peril, but Kratt is far more whimsical than the best-known of these overall. The kind of humour (and the addition of some gory scenes) creates quite a jarring change come the last half an hour or so, too, which may feel like too much of a lurch for some.

The real star of this film, and the character who really holds things together, is Grandma, as played by Mari Lilli. Not only does she capture the exasperation of the older generation when faced with children versed in social media and not a lot else, but her horror-comic turn later in the film is very funny and very memorable; the fact that she plays it completely straight is all to the better. On the other side of the coin, the governor’s shift from cool, calm and collected to a total shambles is bittersweet, giving the film some of its most obvious, or at least universal jokes.

Kratt is ambitious, perhaps a little too much so, and as such its run time is crammed with lots of different plot elements to keep track of, but as a strange, offbeat occult horror comedy, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. You certainly won’t see anything quite like it, and if it’s any indicator of the Estonian sense of humour then it’s fascinating on those terms alone.

Kratt screens as part of Fantasia Festival. The film is available on demand. Ticket information is available on the webpage.

Werewolves Within

An excellent ensemble cast make this a fun and satisfying whodunnit with a little extra bite.

Synopsis: A small town finds themselves trapped in a snowstorm and under threat as a mysterious beast begins to pick them off one by one. As the bodies begin to pile up, it soon becomes clear that the killer is closer than first thought.

Opening on sinister chords leading to a quote from Mr Rogers, Werewolves Within immediately sets out to explore the secretive, dangerous underbelly of outwardly neighbourly, friendly faces with a sense of irreverence. On the surface, the town of Beaverfield is idyllic, but a disputed gas pipeline is causing division among the residents. Finn (Sam Richardson) is the town’s new forest ranger, but needs to practice affirmative affirmations during his drive to his new home, indicating he may not be best placed to contain the bubbling tensions.

If you enjoyed Josh Ruben’s Scare Me, you’re likely to gel similarly with the humour and general rhythm of this, although with a larger number of characters. This sometimes works against it as scenes can feel a little too crowded, meaning some character beats and one-liners end up battling for attention and unfortunately, in some cases, fall into the background. The beauty of the whodunnit conceit is it allows the characters to be mostly characterised by one or two more simple traits, with the ability to expand or subvert that later. Again, in some sections, that feels a little thin or one-note, but the performances and genuinely funny joke rate mean that doesn’t present too much of a problem.

Sam Richardson makes for a charming screen presence as newcomer Finn and his interactions with Milana Vayntrub as Cecily make for some of the strongest scenes. While there are no weak links in the ensemble to speak of, Harvey Guillén as always, is a highlight, although that will be no surprise to fans of What We Do In The Shadows. As already mentioned, some scenes featuring all the characters overwhelm, with the strengths lying in the spaces the film allows the gags a little extra breathing space. While the mystery and comedy elements take centre stage, when it does lean into its horror, there is enough in the way of suspense and gore delivered.

I can’t comment on if it aligns with the video game source material, having not played it myself, but this is a film that pays homage to the works it loves without becoming a direct copy. Mixing the quick editing of films like Hot Fuzz with snappy, punchy character interactions of Clue and Knives Out, as well as Ruben’s previous work in Scare Me results in a confident and fully-formed final product.

Werewolves Within is a fun, satisfying and nimble effort that is sure to gather an appreciative audience.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Signature Entertainment presents Werewolves Within on Digital Platforms and DVD from 19th July

Sam and Mattie Make a Zombie Movie

An often moving ode to community, creativity and of course, zombie movies.

Synopsis: Sam and Mattie, two badass best friends with Down syndrome, rally the entire town of Providence RI to help them storyboard, script, produce, cast, and star in their own dream movie: ‘Spring Break Zombie Massacre.’

I’d argue a film title like Spring Break Zombie Massacre will have something of limited audience appeal – it calls to mind the kind of low-budget, CGI-reliant horror that can be fun for the runtime, but rarely delivers too much in the way of lasting impact. The story behind Spring Break Zombie Massacre is far more interesting and presents a documentary that is full of heart, although not without challenges.

Sam and Mattie Make a Zombie Movie follows two friends with Down Syndrome, who decide they want to make a zombie movie. With the help of Sam’s brother Jesse and a selection of his friends and the wider community, they set to work making their vision come to life. The project is governed by two rules: 1. everyone is to have fun and 2. Mattie and Sam are in charge. These two driving principles are felt throughout the film, even when the pair are confronted with constructive criticism and realities of budget that they admirably take in their stride.

The main stumbling block, for me, comes in how much time the documentary dedicates to showing the film as a final product. At the 50 minute mark, the film’s premiere segues into showing the film itself, which is a nice touch in terms of showing the excitement of that occasion but does leave you feeling slightly short changed in documentary terms. While showcasing some of the content of the film makes sense, it does feel at times like it overbalances the documentary side in the latter half. The interruptions to the clips to provide further context are welcome, adding depth to what is presented on screen. There are no pretensions about the quality of the film, with a summary that ‘the journey is more important than the destination’ feeling very fitting. So much of the joy in this film is seeing wish-fulfilment in action and the drive that everyone has to support that. Just shortening the film clips in favour of more behind the scenes content would be preferable.

Sam and Mattie are such magnetic presences that watching them get to live out their dreams, meeting film writers, effects artists and other personal heroes is really where the appeal of the documentary lies. Matt’s interaction with his local librarian makes for an adorable moment and further highlights the ways that those kind of resources and the people within them become so important to communities. The writing process featured leads to some funny, if somewhat heated exchanges, as some of Sam and Mattie’s ideas are occasionally lost in translation. That the best thing you can give to someone is your time and energy feels incredibly poignant and the film conceals an unspoken tension until the timing is perfect. There is a definite balance here between happy and sad tears, but that is makes you feel throughout is to be commended.

Overall, Sam and Mattie Make A Zombie Movie is a sweet, funny and often moving portrait of the collaborative film-making process, the importance of community and the power of making dreams happen.

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars

You can rent or buy Sam and Mattie Make a Zombie Movie on iTunes

Demon

A charming lead performance offers some anchoring in this interesting, but ultimately disjointed work.

Synopsis: When an unpaid train fine comes back to haunt him, office worker Ralph flees London to a forest motel where a temporary hideout becomes a nightmarish purgatory, and emerging ghosts of the past force him to confront the loss of his father.

All films that seek to blend genres and step outside of that conventional storytelling framework need an anchor and Demon is no different. Ryan Walker-Edwards’ charming and nuanced performance as Ralph provides stable ground, even as the other elements around him vary in quality. Ralph is disconnected, increasingly paranoid and seemingly trapped in a trauma-based arrested development as he leaves his life due to the threat of a pursuing bailiff. Ryan Walker-Edwards is easily able to match both the intensity and vulnerability the role requires. The wider film, however, is more of a challenge, with an uneasy mix of elements that jockey for position without necessary balance.

Part of this disjointedness is no doubt intentional, but the uncanny, dream-like portions of the film never quite feel like a cohesive unit, so the effect is somewhat lost. Some segments that play to a darkly comic critique of fiddly, pointless bureaucracy land well, so there are certainly flashes where the film feels like it has a handle on what it is trying to do. Equally, the moments where it recognises its budgetary limitations and adjusts itself accordingly, including a small-space fight that turns into a video game display, are good, innovative ways of working to its strengths.

However well handled these moments are, Demon is unfortunately all too often lost to indulgence, thematically and physically wandering into scenes that do not offer any extra texture to the film. This is not a case of the surrealism being confusing, as such, but even if something isn’t intended to add meaning, it should leave an impression. A few too many scenes leave you questioning what it added, as opposed to leaving you with any feeling of unease or other emotion. Despite a relatively short runtime, this also makes the film feel longer. Some of the dialogue doesn’t really land, especially in sections where his friend Kent (Jacob Hawley) awkwardly quotes mental health statistics at him. An ongoing side gag is afforded far too much time for a relatively meagre pay-off.

The stylistic choices are of interest here and in addition to the aforementioned switch to video game for a fight scene, there are further switches to the format. Opening on home video footage, before shifting to black and white that adds red tones as the threat rises, there is clearly a desire to experiment here with form and mood, which is to be celebrated, even if it isn’t entirely successful.

A film as disconnected as its protagonist, Demon is an interesting, if flawed descent into paranoia supported by a willingness to experiment with form.

2.5 out of 5 stars
2.5 out of 5 stars

Demon plays at Cinequest’s 2021 virtual festival Cinejoy until 30th March. Find out more here.

Willy’s Wonderland

Repetition can’t dull the fun of Willy’s Wonderland in this sparky Nicholas Cage vehicle.

Synopsis: A quiet drifter is tricked into a janitorial job at the now condemned Wally’s Wonderland. The mundane tasks suddenly become an all-out fight for survival against wave after wave of demonic animatronics. Fists fly, kicks land, titans clash — and only one side will make it out alive.

Willy’s Wonderland is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a particularly unsubtle production. It combines music video-style storytelling, high-action and leans into its ridiculousness to the extent that it is impossible not to get something out of it. At under 90 minutes, there’s very little let up in the action and the film fully understands what it needs to do, hitting necessary beats at swift pace. If you’ve seen the trailer, you won’t have any huge surprises here, but that’s to be welcomed if you’re just very in the frame of mind for the kind of deadpan to wild, high-energy delivery that Nic Cage has come to embody.

Willy’s Wonderland is a former family restaurant that once threw children’s parties with the assistance of animatronic characters. Long-abandoned and covered in graffiti that hints at a dark past, The Janitor seems blasé about it. As he sets to work cleaning a group of teenagers led by Liv (a confident performance from Emily Tosta) seek to destroy the building to end the trouble by burning down the building. This simple concept allows all the effort to go into creating spirited confrontations and keeping things moving at all times.

The animatronic characters are well-designed, all offering a different look that allows for differing choreography. While there is a slight case of diminishing returns in the format, there’s enough fun to be had to keep it interesting. Cage is excellent, given relatively no dialogue, he musters an entertaining, surly performance that fits the material perfectly. Special mention has to go to the design of Siren Sara (Jessica Graves Davis), whose more human, but still exaggerated and uncanny movements work well to switch up the physicality just when the film needs it.

The character animation is great, with special attention given to eyes for reactions and the lurking of some of the more ridiculous characters hits the right comedic notes. Helped by everyone in the cast playing it relatively straight, there is time for the film to indulge in its slick, dynamic editing and turn up the volume. It makes for an enjoyable caper, even if you’ll not get anything revolutionary from it.

Perfect for those Friday nights where you want to switch your brain off and enjoy, Willy’s Wonderland is ridiculous, but all the better for it.

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars

Willy’s Wonderland is released on February 12th on digital platforms including Amazon, iTunes, Sky, Virgin and BT. The film’s physical release can be pre-ordered from Amazon.