Five Nights at Freddy‘s, Blumhouse’s latest horror flick, has been a surprise box office hit. Adapted from a cult video game of the same name, its resounding success shocked critics-– particularly given its dual straight-to-streaming and theatrical releases, an oft-failing strategy typically understood to drain theatrical returns. This overwhelming response would logically lead a potential viewer to assume that the film–– which follows Mike (Josh Hutcherson), the new night guard at a derelict novelty restaurant reminiscent of ShowBiz Pizza or Chuck E. Cheese as he fights off possessed, anthropomorphic, audio-animatronic animals–– is good. Or at least fun. Unfortunately, the film is neither, racking up few scares and even fewer laughs over the course of its bloated, hour and fifty minute runtime. 

Cardboard Kitsch, Flat Acting

In theory, adapting Freddy’s into a movie is a promising concept for a quick, down-and-dirty slasher. Its confined setting, recognizable monsters, and evocatively campy campy arcade trappings should be more than enough for a simple spookfest of the PG-13 variety, a cross between Night at the Museum and It. The result though, is neither stylish nor nostalgic. Greyish cinematography and cardboard acting drain the easy fun of even the simplest callbacks to gems of millennial kitsch, like the “Chia Pet” ad one character watches on a boxy old TV set. If capturing the aesthetics of analogue horror was the goal of including the winkingly cheesy “Security Guard Training Video” Mike watches, the execution is too rote to genuinely capture the visual fun of VHS culture. Josh Hutcherson‘s acting as Mike, the traumatized guard who pops sleeping pills at an alarming rate in an effort to lucid-dream himself into solving his younger brother’s disappearance from decades past, is painfully flat. The rest of the small cast fares little better with their trite, stock roles, rarely mustering a facial expression more animated than their robot costars’. 

source: Universal Pictures

The plot is both blandly straightforward and unnecessarily complicated: Mike battles for custody of his less-loved kid sister Abby (Piper Rubio) against his cartoonishly repellant Aunt Jan (Mary Stewart Masterson) whose villainish attempts to separate the siblings elide the fact that given a history of criminally violent behavior, a spotty employment record, and frequent bouts of callousness, Mike has absolutely no business taking care of a child. Yes, the siblings’ distant relationship is part of the point, yet their relationship is so cold it’s hard to believe either party would want their present domestic circumstances to continue. Beyond the brewing legal battle, Mike’s job at Freddy’s is also made more complicated by Aunt Jan’s dastardly machinations to get him fired (again, not that he needs any help, we’re told he’s been fired countless times in the past year), leading to an odd, disjointed small-town crime subplot about an evil babysitter and her punk brother who vandalize the already-crumbling building–– while Mike isn’t even on-duty. These unnecessary characters may make for good canon fodder, but their filler-style schemes add painful minutes to the film’s already strained runtime.  

It’s No Rainforest Cafe

Cumbersome exposition on Freddy’s sordid history is provided by Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), a police officer on the night beat whose frequent, extended stopovers at the dilapidated pizza joint surely constitute a dereliction of duty. In the ’80s, children went missing, she tells Mike, and “Police searched Freddy’s from top to bottom and couldn’t find anything,” teasing the possibility that his brother’s seemingly unrelated, stranger-danger style kidnapping is connected to Freddy’s (spoiler: it is)–– even though the campground where he disappeared, we are constantly reminded, was in Nebraska. (This puzzling bit of plotting highlights the film’s broader temporal and geographic confusion: Where is Freddy’s exactly? We know it’s not in Nebraska, but besides that the details are vague. If Mike’s parents have been dead “awhile,” how is young Abby alive? His parents seemed to be in their thirties when he was ten or so “back in the ’80s,” before the real, 31-year-old Josh Hutcherson was born, so again Abby’s age raises questions given their twenty year age gap. What year is it anyway? But I digress.)

As the film progresses, dreams and reality, we are supposed to believe, begin to blur for Mike, whose reliance on sleeping pills is treated less like an addiction and more like a niche, New Age hobby. These dalliances with the mind-bending thriller genre also fail to inspire as the film’s “twists” are as conspicuous as the burnt out neon of the sign above the arcade door.

source: Universal Pictures

As for scares, the PG-13 rating leaves little room for creativity. Continual visual references to Jurassic Park, with hulking shadows stalking Abby through darkened theme park environs, merely serve as an unfortunate reminder that countless films deliver on similar premises to infinitely better effect–– even the audaciously brash film ripoff of the Freddy’s video game, Willy’s Wonderland (2021) starring Nic Cage, though deeply mediocre, does better with this sort of material. Poor CGI also adds to the failures of the film’s jumpscare-heavy suspense sequences and continues to undercut the period-specific appeal of the film’s premise: Anyone who’s ever been to The Rainforest Cafe could tell you that this film’s digital “robots” can’t hold a candle to the tangible creepiness of the real dust-covered hulks of metal and audibly grinding gears still on offer at several malls across America. 

source: Universal Pictures


There are a few details worthy of praise: The creatures’ creaky performance of The Romantics’ 1983 rock ballad “Talking in Your Sleep” is entertaining, delivering on the retro promise the film so desperately attempts to evoke… at least the first time it plays. On a similar note, Matthew Lillard‘s presence as the teen-horror elder statesman is sure to warm the hearts of lovers of Scream and Scooby-Doo, bringing much needed joie de vivre (and more facial expressions than the rest of the cast combined) to the otherwise funerary proceedings. Yet, like the darkened rooms of Freddy Fazbear’s, not even he can fully animate this clumsy bit of family entertainment. Its jumble of tropes and lack of imagination bring to mind the conspiracy theory that Chuck E. Cheese recycles its pizza from birthday party to birthday party. The only real scare is that given Five Nights at Freddy’s runaway success, the sequel it so brazenly teases at its conclusion will certainly come to be. At least Matthew Lillard is getting paid.

Five Nights at Freddy’s was released in theaters and on streaming on October 27, 2023!

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