Five Nights at Freddy's
The videogame series Five Nights at Freddy’s is a pretty good base off of which to build a horror movie franchise. The premise of the games is simple: you are a security guard at a rundown family restaurant/arcade. Your character sits in a control room using things like tv monitors, a flashlight, security doors and ventilation to protect himself from the murderous animatronics who reside in the building. The goal is to survive for five nights. That’s it. One room, no fighting, no blood, no adventuring, lots of startling jump scares.
Though it works as a game, there admittedly isn’t a ton of meat on the bones for a movie. However, between the main games, spinoffs, books and comics, there is plenty of mythology about this world. The big-screen adaptation of Five Nights at Freddy’s (104 minutes, plus a mid-credit scene) uses the premise, the mythology, a lot more mobility and throws in a (probably overcomplicated) sympathetic backstory for the protagonist to flesh things out, before blending it all into a PG-13 horror movie.
The result is unscary, with a muddled plot and inconsistent tone. This could have been funny and fun, like the very similar Willy’s Wonderland (a rougher, unhinged, much more violent, funnier and tremendously entertaining 2021 Nicolas Cage-starring take on the same exact concept). Instead, it is a bit of a mess, with a confusingly structured screenplay.
Mike, severely traumatized by his past, is struggling to make ends meet and provide for his little sister. Out of desperation, he accepts a job as a night watchman at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza Place, a once popular restaurant that has been closed for years. It isn’t long before he learns that the animatronics are sentient and extremely dangerous.
I certainly don’t believe that blood/gore are necessary to generate scares. Mood and tone are far more important in that regard. Freddy’s has potentially unsettling monsters (killer robots originally created to delight children, especially with the explanation for their behavior) and an inherently creepy location (essentially, an abandoned Chuck E. Cheese, which is a great horror setting). It wastes those elements, making for a rare case where it truly felt like blood/gore would have helped.
In the games, you don’t see Freddy and friends actually move. They just appear suddenly. It turns out that seeing them walk around isn’t frightening. They even look kind of goofy. The filmmakers didn’t figure out how to make their movements menacing. Maybe if we saw what they were capable of, it would do the trick? Since it’s PG-13, while the robots get a lot of screentime, the vast majority of the gnarly stuff is offscreen. The premise is solid, but these monsters lack personality.
Also lacking personality is the restaurant itself. When Mike arrives for his first night of work, the flashing lights and neglected arcade gave off a haunted vibe. The brief glimpses of the various rooms on the monitors made me excited for how the movie was going to explore them. Sadly, it didn’t. The dining room, with its long tables being overlooked by a stage, is a great juxtaposition of terror and innocence. Five Nights at Freddy’s uses that room frequently, yet it never takes advantage of the visuals. That is the biggest disappointment here. Mike wandering through what he thinks is an empty Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza Place should produce tension. It does not.
Five Nights at Freddy’s has a couple cool moments where shadows are used to show awful things and way more awkward attempts at humor that fall flat. Fans of the series may just be happy to see this world onscreen (it was cowritten by the games’ creator), even if the mythology is delivered in rushed exposition and mixed with a dramatic subplot about Mike’s past that was definitely not needed. It doesn’t lean into the absurdity enough to be fun or the horror enough to be thrilling. It supports the feeling some have that entries in this genre should be rated R. Stay home and watch Willy’s Wonderland instead.
2 out of 5
Josh Hutcherson as Mike
Piper Rubio as Abby
Elizabeth Lail as Vanessa
Mary Stuart Masterson as Aunt Jane
Matthew Lillard as Steve Raglan
Directed by Emma Tammi
Screenplay by Scott Cawthon, Seth Cuddeback and Emma Tammi