There is a scene in Five Nights at Freddy’s where two animatronic monstrosities—one a giant teddy bear and the other a yellow canary so devious even Sylvester would avoid it—look menacingly at a character who watches them both on a security camera. Now, how they know this poor doomed soul is looking at the security feed at that exact moment, or why they harbor him ill intent, I cannot say. What I can attest to is they’re so determined to end his life that they are serving him a dish best served screaming. No, really! The pair carry a sentient cupcake on a dish (it even has eyes and teeth), and they drop it down an air duct with the clear assumption being the malevolent pastry will find its way through the vents and commit homicide.
While watching all of this unfold, your humble reviewer was stuck questioning the logic of, well, everything. In a movie where it’s stated every animatronic creature in this veritable Chuck E. Cheese from Hell is inhabited by the ghost of a murdered child, who is possessing our demented dessert? A demonic mouse? Admittedly, Five Nights at Freddy’s is not a movie that invites such critical analysis, but it’s a bad sign when the mind wanders in this direction all the same.
With what will likely be the biggest horror movie hit of the Halloween season, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a reportedly faithful adaptation of the point-and-click video game franchise of the same name which has wowed Zoomers for years. While I have not played the games, one must admire that the franchise has sold 33.5 million copies to date. Producer Jason Blum, the founder of Blumhouse Productions, certainly does. Not only has the savvy genre filmmaker sought the game creator Scott Cawthon’s blessing (and license) to make this film a reality, but he’s also allowed Cawthon to enjoy an elaborate hands-on role in the production. The gamemaker serves as both a producer and a co-writer on the film.
It shows even to a layman, but not always in the obvious ways. Like a conversation at a party between folks you’ve never met, you can tell certain images or turns of phrase—inside jokes to some and obscure easter egg minutiae to others—are being shared with the utmost reverence. Strangely though, the effect is still not that far removed from the video game movies of 20 years ago which just took cash from brand recognition and ran with it. Whether servicing fans with a feast or crumbs, it’s pretty unappetizing for strangers new to the table.
One such interloper is a guy named Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson), a put-upon big brother who’s had a rough childhood. As a kid, he saw his little brother abducted by a man they never caught. As an adult, he still relives the nightmare of this trauma every time he goes to sleep. He also feels its burden because, with his parents also now gone, he is all that his little sister Abby (Piper Rubio) has left—him plus a cartoonishly evil aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson) who is attempting to take Abby from Mike in the courtroom. It is that dire situation that causes Mike to accept the position of security guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza.
Freddy’s was this town’s go-to children’s entertainment restaurant in the 1980s. It has ball pits, arcade games, and incredibly advanced animatronic critters, including Freddy Fazbear, who plays in a band to prerecorded music. Alas, some children went missing at the joint 30-some years ago and it’s been shut down ever since. Still, for reasons that are not initially clear, the owner insists on keeping the place functional and protected. But Mike is ominously warned that Freddy’s has a high turnover rate among its security guards, and he soon learns why when he catches the animatronic creatures staring at him, their expressions turned askance. And when he brings Abby to spend a night at work, things get really weird.
Having not played the games, it is difficult to parse out which sequence or jump scare was taken from a game and which was invented for the movie. But generally much of the film’s setup and execution seems like it would build a lot more tension if you had a literal stake in the game. If you were controlling Mike’s point-of-view as the creatures appeared between the flickers of light in a hallway, or saw that aforementioned evil cupcake sneaking up behind you, there could be real dread to survive the encounter.
As an actual movie which demands a greater degree of passivity, the suspense is as absent as the customers when Freddy Fazbear jams out in front of an empty room. Admittedly, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a PG-13 horror movie, and as such isn’t necessarily going for the jugular. Nonetheless, there are episodes of Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark with more frights than this ultimately toothless film. At a certain point, one even wishes Hollywood would put a moratorium on jump scares with loud crashing sound effects, because the audience stopped jumping a long time ago.
Directed by Emma Tammi, who did fine and underrated work on her first horror feature, The Wind, there is a tangible search for meaning in this otherwise obligatory exercise in fan service. The film leans heavily into Mike’s sense of trauma and regret. However, any attempts at dramatic epiphany are undercut by a threadbare script that is forced to spend more time exploring the tedious mythology around Freddy’s origins than anything else. And it takes those mythos far too seriously.
There really is a missed opportunity here. The filmmakers could have made a truly bugnuts horror-comedy out of the concept of a giant teddy bear serving someone pizza with one hand and slicing them up with the other. And there are a few tonal winks to the silliness of the concept, especially when Abby meets Freddy and the gang, who are all impressively realized by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop puppeteering. Yet the attempt to lightly touch on gallows humor is handicapped by a script that refuses to treat the subject matter too flippantly. Or creatively, for that matter. We are instead left with a lot of stilted melodrama which, other than Hutcherson, is poorly acted while we wait for the machines to start killing again.
Of course the secret of the real Chuck E. Cheese and family restaurants like it is that they’re for the kids. No parent is going to a venue with automated rocketships and slides because they like the pizza. So it is with Five Nights at Freddy’s, a thoroughly mediocre horror movie for youngins’ with nostalgia for a game they played in 2014. That’s great, but it’s still cold, rubbery, empty-calorie slice of cheesy bread for everyone else.
Five Nights at Freddy’s opens in theaters and on Peacock on Friday, Oct. 27.
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