The ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ Movie Isn’t Worth a Single Evening
If there’s one frightening thing about Five Nights at Freddy’s—and truly, there may only be one—it’s that a movie nearly a decade in the making could turn out this lifeless. Based on Scott Cawthon’s beloved video game franchise about a collection of murderous animatronics in a run-down pizzeria, Five Nights at Freddy’s (in theaters and streaming on Peacock Oct. 27) provides only a paltry amount of the scares that were present in the original games. Whether or not that’s due to the film being in development since 2015 and switching hands multiple times over is anyone’s guess. But it doesn’t seem to help Freddy’s case, given that the long-awaited film adaptation is a disjointed and toothless affair from the jump.
The film, which shares most of its narrative DNA with Cawthon’s first game, is an admirable effort considering that the franchise has expanded into a legitimate media empire. There are nine Five Nights at Freddy’s installments in the collection’s main lineup (plus a wealth of spinoffs and unofficial fan-made projects), novels, and every type of merchandise that you could possibly imagine—every generation needs their own tacky licensed gear to stock up on at Hot Topic. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and even more fans to please. Unfortunately for those diehards, the film is constantly burdened by the pressure of its fanbase’s massive expectations, settling for a garbled, conventional piece of horror slop that hits the games’ familiar beats without any of their mounting tension.
The movie stars Josh Hutcherson as Mike, a young man who can’t seem to hold even the most simple of jobs while stacked against the immensity of his trauma stemming from his younger brother’s abduction when they were kids. Mike still blames himself, but he believes there’s a way he can solve the mystery of his brother’s kidnapping, if he can only remember the murky details. After his parents’ deaths, Mike is charged with the care of his sister Abby (Piper Rubio), much to the chagrin of his greedy Aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson), who wants custody of Abby simply for the monthly government check that comes with it.
In desperate need of a stable job to keep Jane’s crooked lawyers from taking Abby away from him, Mike finds himself at the mercy of career counselor Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard). Steve’s only open position is for a security guard to work the night shift at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria. Freddy’s is a Chuck E. Cheese-like establishment that was big in the ’80s but folded after a series of cryptic child disappearances took place on its grounds.
Are you seeing a pattern here yet?
That kind of narrative predictability is teed up over and over again throughout Five Nights at Freddy’s seemingly endless runtime. (The film runs just under two hours.) And yet, there are just enough sprinkles of nonsense here and dashes of mystifying decisions there to keep most theatrical audiences from walking out. (“Most” being the operative word there, as I counted about as many walkouts as there were nights spent at Freddy’s.) The screenplay is flat, with dull dialogue that makes it patently clear that the writers were more concerned about where to insert the bevy of jumpscares than they were creating a film that is even moderately compelling outside of its cacophony of loud noises. While the games themselves became popular because of these kinds of scare tactics, the gimmick grows old fast when audiences aren’t the ones experiencing the terror firsthand.
Without the viewer playing the role of Mike themselves—flitting between controls to keep the murderous animatronics away from the security office—Five Nights at Freddy’s loses the single apparatus that the games had to concoct any fear. Instead, viewers are left watching and laughing as Hutcherson darts around the pizzeria, trying to ward off some not-so-scary-looking puppets so he can finish his shift. With the interactivity gone, so is our suspension of disbelief, and any remaining shred of believability is thrown to the wind; no self-respecting person would come back to this job, no matter how hard-up they were for a stable job. And when the writers attempt to solve this problem through the inclusion of an absurd side plot about ghost children, who taunt Mike with promises of the revelations behind his brother’s disappearance while possessing the animatronics, the film buckles entirely under the weight of its sky-high stack of plot devices.
There are, however, occasional glimpses of a decent time to be had underneath all that inanity. The film is somewhat nice to look at, with a rich, technicolor spectrum of colors appearing on screen whenever Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria comes alive. Director Emma Tammi competently orchestrates these scenes to feel just creepy enough to arrest viewers into their seats for another moment, prolonging their torture a bit longer to see if the film can conjure any chills. But not even Tammi’s direction and Hutcherson’s charm are capable of buoying a movie that set sail with massive holes in its hull. By the time you’ve guessed the remainder of the film’s plot 30 minutes into its runtime, all that’s left to do is watch it sink.
Given that Cawthon co-wrote the film and served as a producer, there’s no doubt that the movie will at least entertain its core audience of Five Nights at Freddy’s superfans. It does have, at the very least, a scrap of the novelty that attracted countless teens hungry to scare themselves at parties, high on high-school grade weed. But much like those teenagers have outgrown this game, Five Nights at Freddy’s has outgrown the need for a film adaptation, which arrives too late to capture the hype at its most fervent. Still, it’s ironic that this movie and Taylor Swift’s 1989 rerecording—another relic of 2014—are being released on the same day. Maybe nostalgia bait doesn’t need to come with anything new or particularly flashy, as long as it’s reminiscent enough of a simpler time to turn a profit.
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