In today’s modern cinema world, the most frightening description of them all is, “Based on the popular video game.” As Hollywood has shown us time and time again (“Street Fighter”, “Super Mario Bros”, “Alone in the Dark”, “Doom”, “Warcraft”, and the list goes on), nothing good can come from taking something that is mindless electronic fun and crafting it into a feature length film. With this in mind, Blumhouse’s “Five Nights at Freddy’s” wants to break that curse.
After 8 years of fits and starts, the monstrously popular game finally comes to the big screen, after becoming something of a phenomenon since its debut in 2014. Born from the cleverly twisted mind of its creator Scott Cawthon, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” the game (FNaF to its fans) became a cult sensation. With its creepy design, chilling atmosphere, and the depth of its well-thought out lore, fans have long waited for a film adaptation.
The plot of the game is silly but creative. The action takes place at a fictional family pizza place “Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza”, named after its mascot, the animatronic Freddy Fazbear. A popular spot in the 1980s, the restaurant has been closed down for years, due to sinister events that involved missing children. In many of the games (to date, there are nine), the player takes the role of an overnight security guard, who utilizes security cameras, flashlights, and vents to survive the night against the animatronic characters who come alive in the dark.
The film begins by introducing Mike (a solid Josh Hutcherson), a security guard with authority and anger issues that see him fired from jobs after only a short time of employment. With two deceased parents and his work life in shambles, he is desperate to keep custody and care of his little sister Abby (Piper Rubio). Mike is plagued by recurring nightmares of his younger brother Garrett (Lucas Grant), who went missing years ago after being abducted at a campground. While dreaming, Mike tries to relive the moment when his brother was taken in the hope that he will tap into his visual memory and identify the kidnapper.
Adding to his troubles is an ongoing custody battle with their control freak Aunt Jane (the always welcome Mary Stuart Masterson), who wants custody of young Abby, as she believes the socially awkward young girl needs a better caretaker. At the precipice of desperation, MIke consults “career counselor” Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard) to find him a job, which ends up being the security guard position at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza.
The screenplay was written by Scott Cawthon, Seth Cuddeback, and director Emma Tammi (from a story by Tyler MacIntyre, Chris Lee Hill, and Cawthon). Director Tammi and her co-writers open up the story. In the game, the protagonist is an unknown night watchman motivated only by survival. The film rightfully gives Mike a backstory and motivation to keep going to such a strange job where everything seems “off”.
While many films in the horror genre could certainly benefit from more character development, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” spends too much time away from the location of the title. A little less family drama and a lot more haunted pizza joint would have amped this picture up. Cawthon’s game is a visceral thrill full of atmospheric terrors and nail-biting tension. Every moment is a creepy aura of sound and shadowy visuals where the danger gets closer and closer by the second. The film captures these moments, but only in a couple of scenes. Just when we think the film will be heavy on the tension, it moves away, returning to Mike and his personal issues. We shall dub this the “Halloween Ends Curse”, as that film suffered from cutting away from Michael Myers, in favor of a new character.
While it is understandable how the filmmakers wanted a wider audience and worked to achieve their PG-13 rating, the film should have leaned into the horror rather than peppering it throughout. When these moments do arrive, they are fun and just monstrous enough to satisfy genre fans 10 and up.
Director Tammi has a good handle on the scenes with the animatronics and their design is mercifully practical with not a hint of CGI. The Jim Henson Creature Shop designed the possessed Freddy Fazbear and his fellow characters (Chica, Cupcake, Bonnie, and Foxy). It goes without saying how their design is flawless and creative, capturing the essence of Cawthon’s creations. With Henson’s team in charge, their work is always a highlight.
Marc Fisichella’s production design is another strength. The pizza joint is an eerie place. Fisichella’s dark and decrepit design of a broken down restaurant is visually effective and gives the feeling of unrelenting dread. When the film stays inside the pizzeria, it works.
The filmmakers stumble in their resistance to really “go for it”. This could have been a roller coaster thrill ride of laughs and chills, falling somewhere between films such as “Poltergeist” and “Gremlins”. Those two works found a perfect balance of humor and horror; each one creative, scary, and wildly entertaining. Adults, teens, and kids of a certain age group could enjoy them. While Tammi’s film does have its moments, it never fully lets loose and can’t seem to decide on what age group to aim for, yet for its faults, the film works enough to enjoy a one-time watch.
Hutcherson is a good actor and does well here, taking his role seriously. Elizabeth Lail is fine as Vanessa, a local cop who befriends Mike and Matthew Lillard is uncharacteristically (and thankfully) restrained. The true find is Piper Rubio. In genre films, child actors are too often cloying and phony. Rubio gives a sweet performance, using her soft voice and embracing the quiet moments.
While fans of the game will enjoy the film and its bevy of “Easter eggs”, newcomers to the story will either go along for the ride or resist such a preposterous tale. As it stands, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” promises to be another hit for the unstoppable Blumhouse. While far from a great movie, it has enough merit to squeak by. Emma Tammi, Scott Cawthon, and their team have, at the very least, made something unique. In the genre cinema of 2023, being distinctive is a major plus.
Five Nights at Freddy’s
Written by Scott Cawthon, Seth Cuddeback, and Emma Tammi (from a story by Tyler MacIntyre, Chris Lee Hill, and Scott Cawthon)
Directed by Emma Tammi
Starring Josh Hutcherson, Piper Rubio, Elizabeth Lail, Matthew Lillard, Mary Stuart Masterson
PG-13, 110 Minutes, Universal Pictures/Blumehouse Productions/ScottGames