In 2014, a little indie video game created by Scott Cawthorn called Five Nights at Freddy’s took online culture by storm. With playthroughs of the game racking up hundreds of millions of views, a unique premise, and a twist on 80’s nostalgia, a devoted following came quickly.
Cawthorn’s game series was never an exceptional feat of gameplay — it’s a point-and-click jump scare startle machine backed by an impressive lore and simplistic game design. Still, its gang of killer robot animals have proved immensely popular with Gen Z and younger.
With it being a tremendous year for video game adaptation, with HBO’s spellbinding The Last of Us series and Universal’s smash hit The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Five Nights at Freddy’s reminds us that game adaptations are still fully capable of being awful.
Mike (Josh Hutcherson) is a down-on-his-luck security guard with a traumatic past, hopping from job to job after struggling to cope with the death of his parents, and the disappearance of his younger brother from when he was a kid. Needing money to look after his younger sister Abby (Piper Rubio), Mike meets with a career consultant (Matthew Lillard) and is given the thankless gig of working as a security guard at the abandoned, but still fully functional Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria. Back in the 80’s, Freddy’s was a popular Chuck E. Cheese-style arcade and pizzeria known for its band of animatronic animals. Now abandoned, the animatronics roam around and kill anyone they don’t like.
Directed by Emma Tammi (The Wind), Five Nights at Freddy’s aims for a throwback vibe of an 80’s Joe Dante film, but blatantly misses the mark. While fan service has been heavily taken into account, with the look of Freddy’s, the design of the animatronics, and often sound effects being painstakingly recreated, that’s about all the film has going for it. This is a dull, toothless and bloodless PG-13 horror flick that fails to scare whenever it remembers to try to do so. For a film about a security guard working in an abandoned building with killer animatronic puppets, much of the sluggish 110 minute runtime is dedicated to yet another a tired plot about trauma and grief, involving ghost children and repetitive dream sequences.
Josh Hutcherson has always been a likable presence and a solid performer. He does fine work in the film, but his character is dull and isn’t an interesting enough character to carry a large portion of the runtime. The script feels like three competing drafts all thrown into one, with no tonal cohesion. Character motivations rarely make sense, often calling attention to obvious plot twists hiding in plain sight; that’s setting aside all the times characters make the most bone-headed decisions. The narrative is unnecessarily convoluted for what should be a fairly simplistic story. Side plots are jarringly introduced, taking up more of the runtime. One major subplot involving Mike’s aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) doesn’t even get a true resolution. Matthew Lillard is underutilized and is forced to reenact a blatant Scream homage so shameless, it made me want to kick the seat in front of me.
For a film based on a property known for its jump scares, this is the rare instance where excessive jump scares would’ve been given more mileage. However, Five Nights at Freddy’s doesn’t attempt to be a horror film until the 80-minute mark. The few attempts at scares fail to register. There’s never a genuine sense of tension or even atmosphere. The use of practical puppetry over CGI is highly admirable and does aid in the sense of menace created by the killer robot animals. Heck, Freddy and the gang are still unsettling even when they’re being nice. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t know whether these killer animatronics are villains or sympathetic characters. In one scene they’re ruthlessly dispatching a handful of intruders, the next, they’re having a sleepover with our main character and his little sister.
Given the source material, an R rating was never a likelihood, but even for a PG-13, the violence here is extremely tame. Feeling stunted even in its bloodiest moment, the film has no bite to it, no sense of danger or edge. The Newton Brothers score is moody, containing a memorable opening credits theme, but does plenty of the heavy lifting during the films few scary set pieces.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is a confounding disaster. Set aside the muddled storytelling and putrid cliches, you have a film with no scares, a severe lack of suspense and no compelling characters.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is now playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock.