Whenever there is a list of the great horror films of the 70s, it is usually filled with the unassailably great, albeit obligatory films: The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, and Carrie. All are worthy, all could be on the Mount Olympus of horror classics. There is always one movie missing. One that is in many ways far more horrifying, more twisted, more disturbing than the others.
It features a cartoonishly sadistic villain who lures his hapless victims into his secret and fanciful lair and then murders them in elaborate and lurid ways. Each of his unsuspecting prey one-by-one gruesomely perish at the hand of his barbarous, but meticulously choreographed cruelty. As they make their final exit, the last voice his victims will hear is the killer spouting Shakespeare, Keats, Oscar Wilde, and Lewis Carroll, which only serves to highlight his callous indifference to life and his own need to orchestrate their macabre theatrical demise.
Who is this sick twist? Who is this personification of biblical malevolence? Who stands shoulder-to-shoulder next to Psycho’s Norman Bates, The Shinning’s Jack Torrance, Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth, and Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter? Willy Wonka; horrifyingly realized by Gene Wilder. Consider the facts of his murder resume: Charlie Bucket is the only child who makes it out alive. Wonka sings, dances, and plays a little piccolo as parents watch in horror as their children are systematically exterminated. Did you see those kids at the end of the story; lesson-learned, but safely reunited with their parents? Nope.
Before his murderous mayhem begins Wonka terrorizes his victims on a savage and hallucinogenic boat ride befitting of the River Styx which looks like a collaboration between Dante, Salvador Dali and the Manson Family. Basked in an unearthly red glow, the psychotic chocolatier maniacally shrieks, sweat running down his shaking forehead: “So the danger must be growing! Are the fires of Hell a-glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing?” Horrific and ghoulish images flash from every direction and the demonic music continues to build to a nightmarish crescendo, while his victims are pleading in vain for it to stop. Little do they know, the worst is yet to come.
As one drowning child is gasping his last, his mother begs for help and Wonka makes no effort to save him and mockingly feigns concern whispering: “help. police. murder.” His mother frantically explains “He can’t swim!” and Wonka (while snacking) dispassionately says: “Well there’s no better time to learn.”
Another victim falls to her fiery death in an industrial blast furnace; her panicked father seeks solace from Wonka and he simply says: “She was a bad egg” and then he casually moves the remaining group to the next staged horror like Sweeney Todd giving a barbershop tour.
Another child eats some untested experimental gum, has an adverse reaction which manifests itself in an extreme bloating/hyper-edema and turns her an oxygen-deprived shade of blue. Her father begs for a doctor, Wonka calmly states “It happens every time.”
Wonka knew how this would end from the very beginning. Spoiler: he had songs written, staged, choreographed and rehearsed with bizarre little orange people detailing the demise of each child; a “dead” give away.
In the end, only Charlie Bucket (who unflinchingly seems to have accepted everyone else has been systemically murdered) has survived this candied Squid Games gauntlet. Wonka with uncharacteristic banality unceremoniously ends the musical death tour and starts to work at his desk as if none of it happened. When Charlie timidly approaches the desk (PTSD anyone?) Wonka unleashes a torrent of psychotic verbal abuse and invented Latin: "I, the undersigned, shall forfeit all rights, privileges, and licenses herein and herein contained, et cetera, et cetera...fax mentis incendium gloria cultum, et cetera, et cetera...memo bis punitor delicatum!" It's all there, black and white, clear as crystal! so you get NOTHING! You lose! Good day sir!”
Seconds later Wonka joyfully explains this confectionary crucible was staged to give Charlie the entire chocolate factory. Hugs all around. At this point Charlie has to be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Screaming, murder, followed by love, warmth and giving. I’m sure Wonka has a psychiatrist on retainer.
As a child of the 70s we loved this movie. We accepted all of it. Today there is probably an entire chapter in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders called “Wonka Induced Trauma.” Nevertheless Gene Wilder was, and still is, my idol. He was utterly unhinged, funny, smart, and warm, and never predictable. He is, and will always be, Willy Wonka; once you get past the murder.