In the cinematic adaptation of the cult favorite game series Five Nights at Freddy’s, there was a real opportunity to make something fun and even iconic. It wouldn’t even have been that hard: Just give us 90 minutes of animatronic dolls chasing down Mike (Josh Hutcherson) and his little sister Abby (Piper Rubio) in increasingly baroque surprise scares. What we have instead is dull and waterlogged with backstory and lore in lieu of a fun horror time.
The barbeones version of the setup is more than enough to hang a movie on: Mike, desperate to maintain custody of his sister from their selfish aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson), takes a security guard job at a forlorn ShowBiz Pizza-style eatery, complete with a possessed and murderous animatronic band. Mike is offered the job by a suspicious recruiter (Matthew Lillard), and he quickly befriends Vanessa, a patrolling cop (Elizabeth Lail) as his quasi-romantic foil.
Alas, that plot makes up all of 20% of the films runtime. The rest of the movie is obsessed with bizarre offshoots, centrally Mike’s quest to solve the mystery of his brother’s childhood abduction decades earlier, tied to dream sequences and a curse linked to long-disappeared children. It burdens the storyline beyond repair.
The craftsmanship on display by director Emma Tammi and her team does little to alleviate the narrative woes. Bland sets and underlit chase scenes rob the movie of the atmospheric tension it sorely needs. The jump scares, which should be the movie’s bread and butter, are poorly executed, mistimed, and awkwardly staged, failing to cause even a ripple of unease.
Despite these problems, the film does shine in one department: the animatronics. The anthropomorphic animal designs have an uncanny cartoon menace to them, and are executed with a tactile realism that could easily have been shitty CGI. The big hiccup is that they’re far too pristine: The wear and tear expected of machinery over 30 years old are noticeably absent, somewhat undercutting the intended creep factor.
Here’s where I will dive into a brief tangent: I have visited with my friend and podcast co-host Brian and his brother the place that is probably the closest mirror in the world to Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza in the movie: the largely untouched warehouse for Rock-afire Explosion (i.e. the pre-Chuck E. Cheese singing animal band) in Orlando. It is indeed as unsettling as you would expect to see half-assembled animal robots wilting away in dim lighting, their foam and plastic exteriors melting into goop and losing their color. Very cool visit. The documentary that inspired us to go there is a must-watch, too. (On YouTube here.)
Five Night at Freddy’s alienates viewers unfamiliar with the franchise. It’s punctuated with pauses that seem designed for fan service, perhaps cheering in a theater for the introduction of some familiar character or image. But these moments fall flat for the uninitiated like me.
I’m especially annoyed at the film’s failure becuase Five Nights at Freddy’s could have served a real purpose as a an exhilarating entry point into horror for tweens and younger teens. “Killer Chuck E. Cheese robots” is a concept that, to me, holds more inherent terror than, e.g., a malevolent TikTok-dancing doll. (The financial success of both movies plus Cocaine Bear are the key data points in the rise of “meme horror”.) The movie is probably also not helped by comparisons to Willy’s Wonderland, a 2021 film with a similar theme: Even though most people I know who saw that one didn’t like it, everyone I’ve talked to who has seen both, says Willy’s Wonderland was better.
Ultimately, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a missed opportunity. The straightforward version of this narrative was set aside for a busy and incoherent narrative. What could have been a colorful and PG-13 macabre adventure is instead a lackluster and muddled affair.