Five Nights at Freddy's Is a Solid Gateway Horror Movie
The beloved video game becomes a family-friendly(ish) horror flick.
Video game developer Scott Cawthon birthed a pop-culture phenomenon with his survival horror franchise Five Nights at Freddy’s. Cawthon’s evil Chuck E. Cheese reinvention is internet famous, especially captivating children who anxiously watch YouTube playthroughs, own Freddy Fazbear Funko Pop! dolls, and spread the restaurant mascot’s legacy across the internet. It’s younger audiences keeping Five Nights at Freddy’s relevant, just like the younger audiences that Blumhouse targets with its family-oriented PG-13 production. Director Emma Tammi treats Freddy’s Hollywood debut as a gateway not only for horror fans to experience Five Nights at Freddy’s, but for peewee video game fans dipping their toes into spooky cinema — maybe even for the first time.
Josh Hutcherson stars as overnight security guard Mike Schmidt, the newest employee of the abandoned Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Those familiar with the surveillance monitor gameplay in Cawthon’s games will be happy to know this isn’t a movie that tethers Hutcherson to a chair for almost two hours. Cawthon, Tammi, and co-writer Seth Cuddeback turn an anonymous watchman into a down-on-his-luck older brother with custody of lil’ sister Abby (Piper Rubio). The film isn’t solely about surviving five nights in Freddy Fazbear’s restaurant. Mike’s obsession with dream theory fantasies and Abby’s relationship with imaginary friends keep scenes away from the pizzeria connected to the supernatural happenings within Freddy’s domain, really veering from the repetitive actions of Cawthon’s click-and-hide programming.
A lot is going on with Five Nights at Freddy’s, a young adult horror film with a severe tone rooted in adolescent deaths and lingering trauma. The franchise’s main villain William Afton is still canon, as are his kiddie murders when Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza was still operational, which parallels Mike’s recurring nightmares about the day his little brother Garrett was snatched. Then you have Abby’s imaginative outlook when she tags along for a shift with Mike, providing this whimsically innocent perspective when she discovers Freddy’s animatronic gang comes to life at night. One minute Mike is dashing through a dreamscape, sweating guilt like bullets — the next, Abby is leading a furniture fort construction montage set to psychedelic tunes like some offbeat ‘80s comedy. Such clashing viewpoints can be effective as the monstrosities within Freddy’s weasel their way into Mike’s thoughts, but also strangely and disconnectedly dour as Mike grief-spirals yet again.
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop does a magnificent job re-creating the franchise’s original animatronic characters, from hook-handed pirate Foxy to Chica’s ferocious cupcake friend. Special effects designers nail the rigidness of robotic movements as well as the cartoonish design of bulky animal exteriors, which is leagues better than what we’ve seen so far in animatronics-gone-haywire comparisons like Willy’s Wonderland or The Banana Splits Movie. A PG-13 rating means SFX attention is put chiefly on Freddy’s freakshow band, given how gore isn’t really necessary (though shadows project one gnarly kill). Machinery functions naturally in terms of clunky-footed heaps of metal coming alive, giving the film a distinctly eerie trademark that does the improbable: brings Freddy and his cohorts to screen in a way that should please diehard fans and newcomers alike.
Judged on horror merits, it’s not a perfect experience. Expect something more entertaining than all-time terrifying, like Blumhouse’s AI cautionary tale, M3GAN. That’s not a complaint because gateway horror is what hooks less courageous audiences still in their formative years as blossoming genre fans. Veteran horror watchers will probably suspect there’s more to Elizabeth Lail’s police officer Vanessa from the minute she knocks on Freddy’s front door during Mike’s shift, much like how they probably won’t flinch at obvious jump-scares telegraphed miles away. Five Nights at Freddy’s isn’t trying to reinvent horror formulas; it’s comfortably working within familiarity to bring a beloved intellectual property to theaters. That’s either a recommendation or a deterrent based on where you fall on the spectrum of horror movie fans. Tammi sticks by the film’s intro-level intentions and executes as advertised, which showcases the same confidence she brought to her haunting Western The Wind. It also helps to have veteran actors like Matthew Lillard stealing scenes when they’re called upon.
That’s not an ironclad defense of Five Nights at Freddy’s. At 109 minutes, there’s an imbalance between dangers that lurk each night of Mike’s detail and the meandering that occurs either in his dream world or at his and Abby’s home. In trying to establish weighty backstories about de facto parents doing the best they can, tension fades until Mike goes back on duty. There’s a maturity to themes that seems at odds with the childlike wonder of Freddy Fazbear’s ball pits and arcade machines, if only because of how tonality bounces back and forth. The games themselves feature deathly serious storytelling, so that’s not a surprise — it’s more how the film sometimes inefficiently executes its grim realities as delivered by animatronic children’s entertainers.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is a solid adaptation of Scott Cawthon’s indie darling-turned-household brand. Emma Tammi respects the tenets of gameplay throughout, with Easter eggs thrown into frame that will keep avid players cackling — but there’s also a strive to build an original Five Nights at Freddy’s narrative using a mix of new and existing parts. It feels akin to the latest Mortal Kombat reboot, which was met with complaints because there was no official tournament even though there were many one-on-one fights with epic fatalities anyway. Five Nights at Freddy’s could earn the same complaints since you’re not watching the protagonist flick light switches and pour over security feeds for an hour, because how dull would that become? It might not be the scariest or most full-throttle horror film of the year, but it does translate Five Nights at Freddy’s into a family-friendly(ish) horror tale that sets the nostalgic innocence of childhood ablaze.