Back in 2014 the indie game Five Nights at Freddy’s fired the imaginations and nightmares of gamers with its twitchy, fast-paced, stressful management of a low-powered security camera system and a couple of security doors. The premise of the game is simple: survive the night as a security guard while the animatronics at a haunted pizzeria come to life.
The game trades on the creepiness of those old Showbiz Pizza (later Chuck E. Cheese) robot concerts and their terrifying characters. While that ill-fated pizza franchise has struggled with bankruptcy, the interest in deadly animatronics slaying unsuspecting night watchman and would-be pie lovers has only grown.
It’s not surprising, then, that Hollywood would take note of Five Nights at Freddy’s success and attempt to capitalize on this very specific horror niche. 2019 saw the release of The Banana Splits Movie, a horror comedy ludicrously based on the late 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Banana Splits.
I haven’t seen The Banana Splits Movie (though it’s definitely on my list of “weird things to watch”), but I have seen the most recent entry into the subgenre of animatronics horror: 2021’s Willy’s Wonderland, starring Nicolas Cage in a role completely counter to the over-the-top acting style Cage usually employs: he doesn’t speak a single word in the entire film.
If the whole flicks sounds like a gimmick—a silent Nicolas Cage cleaning up a failed family pizza parlor haunted by demon-possessed robots—it is. But the gimmick is all part of the fun, and this movie may not be many things, but it is that: fun.
Essentially, Nicolas Cage’s character—“The Janitor”—is a cool dude with an awesome car. He picks up a flat tire in a rural town that only accepts cash for the repairs, which outrageously come to $1000. Since no one in 2021 carries around that kind of cash, the mechanic makes The Janitor an offer: work overnight cleaning up Willy’s Wonderland, and he can get his car back, fully repaired, in the morning. Willy’s owner, Tex McAdoo, promises to pay for the repairs in exchange for the night’s labor.
The Janitor sets to work cleaning the filthy establishment, taking regular breaks to play pinball and chug energy drinks. Periodically, an animatronic demon attacks him, and he dispatches of the mechanical nightmare with ease. After bagging up the critter, he continues cleaning, while also taking his regularly-scheduled pinball breaks.
Meanwhile, a group of teens, tired of the town’s complicity with sacrifices to Willy and his animatronic goons, determine to burn down the store. They realize The Janitor is inside, and gain entry to the locked building. One by one, they’re knocked off by the demons, except for the local sheriff’s daughter.
Naturally (spoiler alert), the sheriff is in on the scam, having made a pact with Willy and his minions to provide out-of-towners as sacrifices to feed the creatures in exchange for Willy leaving the townsfolk alone. Poetic justice is served repeatedly, and The Janitor does a spectacular job cleaning the facility (one montage sequences shows a truly remarkable bathroom cleaning sequence, as brown toilets become sparkling white).
The story quite obviously requires some suspension of disbelief. How does The Janitor dispatch the horrors so easily? Why does he keep playing pinball—and why is the machine in the kitchen? Why does he keep cleaning even after he realizes how much danger he faces?
Asking such questions misses the point of the film; that is, that there’s not really a point, other than enjoying Nicolas Cage acting beating up robots. Perhaps there’s some point about duty, or about Christian work ethic—The Janitor completes his job, even after he learns he is just a pawn in a sick, demonic game, and does so cheerily, if stoically—but I suspect the movie was another way for Cage to pay his back taxes without having to learn any dialogue.
Whatever the point is or isn’t, isn’t it enough that Nicolas Cage cleans toilets and kills robots?