(2021) Horror Comedy (Screen Media) Nicolas Cage, Emily Tosta, Beth Grant, Ric Reitz, Chris Warner, Kai Kadlec, Caylee Cowan, Jonathan Mercedes, Terayle Hill, Christian Del Grosso, David Sheftell, Jiri Stanek, Jessica Graves Davis, Taylor Towery, Chris Bradley, Duke Jackson, Billy Bussey, BJ Guyver, Christopher Carlos Padilla, Olga Cramer, Grant Cramer, Madison Leigh. Directed by Kevin Lewis
Back in the ‘80s, we used to go to the neighborhood video store to find horror movies that we’d missed in the theaters or on cable. Every so often, we’d discover a gem on the shelves that we might not have heard of, or if we did hadn’t seen because it only played L.A. and New York. We’d rent the puppy, order a pizza (if we still had cash) or grab whatever snacks we could lay our mitts on and settle in for an evening of bliss, usually with a few invited friends – we don’t share such things with just anyone, you understand.
A mysterious drifter (Cage) rolls into a small town in his muscle car only to see it break down. The repairs cost way more than he has, so a deal is struck; if he spends the night cleaning up a disused family entertainment center that owner Tex McAdoo (Reitz) is thinking about re-opening, he’ll get the repairs done on the house. The drifter agrees to be a Janitor for a night (the character is referred to in the credits as “The Janitor” so we’ll do the same here).
What the Janitor isn’t told is that the property used to be owned by a group of serial killers who used to lure families into a “special room” for satanic rituals. When the law caught on, the murderers performed a ritual that transferred their souls into the animatronic characters. Now they come to life from time to time and the town, tired of having them hunt down their own citizens, promise to provide human sacrifices for the bloodthirsty machines. People like the Janitor.
Liv (Tosta) has a special connection to Willy’s Wonderland, as the Chuck E. Cheese from Hell is known, has an agenda of her own. She’s gonna burn the MF to the ground. However, when she realizes there’s an innocent man in there, she goes inside to rescue him along with her fellow teens, albeit reluctantly. Can anyone say midnight snack?
But, as Liv so eloquently puts it, as it turns out, the Janitor isn’t locked in with the possessed animal machines (Willy the Weasel! Gus the Gorilla! Ozzie the Ostrich! Arty the Alligator!); they’re locked in there with him. Armed with a busted broom, a plunger and other tools of the trade, he takes on the murderous characters in between bouts of gulping down Punch Pop (“A fistful of caffeine to the kisser”) and playing pinball.
Bleary-eyed gamers who have spent hours playing the 5 Nights at Freddy’s series might be heard to say quizzically “Wait…what?” when they hear the plot. There is a real 80s vibe here, from the tinny synthesizer-laden score to the horror tropes of dumb teens pausing for sex in a deadly haunted house and, of course, plenty of gory goodness. Children of that era will likely appreciate the similarities.
And it’s also true that Cage is usually good for action fun, whether through his idiosyncratic line readings or legendary on-screen freak-outs. While some of the latter take place, the former is a wash as the Janitor has no dialogue whatsoever. Not a word. Still, Cage is still Nicolas Cage enough through gestures, body language, and his trademark pissed-off glare.
The movie’s big flaw is that they have this setting of a dilapidated family entertainment center, complete with ball pits, pinball machines and a full-service kitchen, but don’t really do anything with it. The robots attack, the Janitor counter attacks, blood, blood, gears, gears, snarl, scream, done. This happens time after time. A little more imagination would have been appreciated.
Still, for sheer nostalgia value and of course the presence of Nicolas Cage, this can’t be beat. So grab yourself a gallon of Jolt Cola, fire up the microwave pizza rolls, grab a couple of bags of Nacho Cheese Doritos, and settle in your bean bag. All that’s missing is the time stamp and wiggly lines of your old VHS player.
REASONS TO SEE: Completely whacked in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really take advantage of its environment.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cage has no spoken dialogue in the film, and communicates only through grunts and occasional battle yells.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews, Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 5 Nights at Freddy’s
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10