The teens and tweens that comprise most of the target demographic for the horror thriller Five Nights at Freddy’s deserve a lot better than what they’re going to get here. Confused, overstuffed, and surprisingly low on scares, Five Nights at Freddy’s (based on the popular video game series of the same name) is caught between trying to be a modern trauma based horror movie, an early 90s throwback, and an easter egg laden deep dive aimed at super fans. Portions of the screening audience I watched this with were literally screaming and squealing with delight, and while I admire and understand that enthusiasm, it was really just a basic example of people popping for references they recognized. Anyone looking for something genuinely scary or amusing, or those who have limited knowledge of the games, should stay far, far, far away from Five Nights at Freddy’s.
Mike (Josh Hutcherson) is a former mall security guard in need of a new job. He’s currently caring for his little sister, Abby (Piper Rubio), and his evil Aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) is willing to do anything underhanded in her power to gain custody of the child. Hat in hand after being fired for snapping on a mall patron, Mike begs the guy running an employment agency (Matthew Lillard) for any work he can get. The only job available is working the graveyard shift protecting Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a Chuck E. Cheese type place that was big with kids in the 1980s, but has since been shuttered, in part due to a scandal involving some missing children. Like Chuck E. Cheese, the restaurant had an animatronic animal band – a bear, a fox, a chick, a bunny, and a cupcake – that rocked out every day and part of every night. Mike, who takes heavy doses of sleeping pills, has been traumatized since childhood after the abduction of his younger brother, and this place isn’t doing much to help his condition and stress level. Wait till he finds out that those animatronics are alive and murderous!
The Five Nights at Freddy’s video game series was the brain child of creator Scott Cawthon, a somewhat controversial and divisive figure who gets a co-writing credit on this screenplay. But outside of the location, some of the restaurant’s mythology, familiar feeling set pieces, and the creepy robots, his input comes across as somewhat minimal. Four other writers, two who get screenwriting credit and two who share story credit alongside Cawthon, are credited with Five Nights at Freddy’s, and its glaringly apparent that there are far too many cooks gathered around the pizza oven.
The first hour of Five Nights at Freddy’s feels like a different film from everything that follows, like the first half of a script has been Frankensteined onto the back end of a something else entirely. So much energy is expended on building up mythology, that by the time it’s time to get around to the really good stuff, this already overlong, lumbering, and horribly paced mess is getting ready to wrap up. Not the vast mythology surrounding the video game world of Freddy Fazbear’s, mind, but rather the wonky, and somehow still underbaked (and ultimately unresolved) mythology of Mike’s family situation and his neuroses.
Mike has been experimenting with dream therapy to deal with his issues, but other than creating a sort of psychic link between Mike, Abby, and the robots, it all comes across like a lightweight Nightmare on Elm Street riff where the monsters don’t even bother to show up for work. These sequences, of which there are many, are always set in the same location (a family camping trip in the Nebraskan woods, which is funny to think about considering how flat most of that state is), they begin the same way, they generally end the same way, and they take up far too much time. It’s repetitive and needlessly monotonous, the kind of thing that made me openly think “this could’ve been an email” every time Five Night’s at Freddy’s grinds to a halt to take on emotional baggage it can’t sustain.
I understand wanting to build up a main human character to do battle with these cute, but deadly bots, but that only works if these people feel like they could be remotely realistic. The dialogue and character interactions strain credibility every step of the way because director and co-writer Emma Tammi (The Wind) never settles upon a unifying tone. Five Nights at Freddy’s never makes the decision to embrace being a jump scare filled camp fest or a serious, edgy reboot of a game played primarily by young adults. Hutcherson is acting like he’s in an A24 movie. Masterson is acting like she’s in a John Waters movie. Elizabeth Lail – who plays a sympathetic police officer who befriends Mike – might be spot on by acting like she’s in something that’s going straight to VOD. I have no idea what movie Lillard thinks he’s in, but he’s such a bright spot in an otherwise dull offering that I would love to see what’s going on in his head. The “serious scary” and “silly scary” tones are always at loggerheads, and no one ever gets on the same page, making the characters hard to care about and even harder to buy into.
But should the characters even really matter all that much in something like Five Nights at Freddy’s? One could credibly argue that these people don’t matter in the slightest as long as there are scenes where giant animatronics are creeping up on people and tearing them limb from limb. Unfortunately, Tammi doesn’t often deliver on the types of jump scares that kept gamers coming back to the series over the past decade of its existence. Outside of the very first jump – which turns out to be an inconsequential gag that has no payoff – there’s nothing very scary going on here. Tammi leans so heavily into the audience’s love of the premise, that she just remounts scenes from the game, something that might delight the hardcore fans who don’t care what they see on screen as long as they see the characters, but will leave almost everyone else wishing they were playing the game and experiencing some level of fright for themselves. (It also assuredly won’t please traditional horror movie buffs, as the lack of gore – save for one memorably nasty moment – and overall terror won’t be their bag.)
There are some bright spots here and there. Tammi does create a nifty early 90s sort of aesthetic (even though it’s unclear when any of this is actually taking place), and the film is a lot less murky looking than one usually gets from this kind of effects heavy genre effort. The creature design is pleasing to look at and nicely detailed. Some of the jokes are actually funny, and whenever Tammi allows things to get kinda loose and playful, there are some brief delights. But those glimpses of good will almost go completely out the window when Five Nights at Freddy’s lurches uncomfortably into one of the shoddiest final acts in recent memory. A climax so incompetently botched, Five Nights at Freddy’s not only cuts away from “the good stuff,” but flat out seems to be missing wide swaths of plot that would coherently wrap any of this up. I thought about whether or not the filmmakers and producers were trying to save stuff for a sequel, but even by that rationale, it still makes no sense. Combine that with big twist reveals that almost everyone – fans or otherwise – will be able to call from the opening minutes, and the viewer is left with something that runs out of steam just when it should be getting good.
Five Nights at Freddy’s will likely be successful at the box office because it’s Halloween time and the brand is an established one. One needn’t look any further than any teen oriented boutique in a shopping mall to find out just how strong and omnipresent Cawthon’s creations have become. And indeed at the screening I attended a lot of those fans showed up and showed out to voice their appreciation. I can respect that sort of love for something, but I can’t share in that enthusiasm beyond a certain point, especially when even they deserve so much better than this.
Five Nights at Freddy’s opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, October 27, 2023.
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