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How to make sense of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” a family-friendly horror thriller about a security guard who discovers and must defend himself from a gang of creepy animal robots? “Five Nights at Freddy’s” was adapted from the popular video games by three co-writers: series creator Scott Cawthon, director Emma Tammi, and Scott Cuddeback. It’s pretty bloody for a PG-13-rated horror movie, though it’s probably not as grisly as you might expect if you’ve played the games. Tammi's movie also spans 110 minutes, which might surprise viewers given how fast-paced and over-edited many scenes are.
But none of this will surprise the games’ fans, who are presumably familiar with the movie’s eerie tone and still-expanding meta-narrative. Yet while there’s enough ambient dread in this “Five Nights at Freddy’s” feature to indicate why the video games are so popular, there’s more by-the-numbers plotting than needed.
Tammi's “Five Nights at Freddy’s” often feels like a pre-teen dream of what a horror movie should be, full of incidental details that tease deeper and stranger avenues to be explored in future spinoffs. If you like the games, you like poking around the characters’ world and learning about their backstories, which have grown exponentially stranger and more elaborate after various sequels and side project expansions. The movie’s main story is anemic by comparison, though it’s still sturdy enough, given its creators’ diligent attention to familiar dialogue and story beats.
Security guard Mike (Josh Hutcherson) agrees to watch over Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a family-friendly pizzeria and video game arcade that shut down in the 1980s after some mysterious child disappearances. Mike would rather not work the night shift at a decrepit “Chuck E. Cheese”-type entertainment center, as he tells the friendly but mysterious cop Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail). Then again, Mike’s job prospects are slim, and he needs money to keep custody of his sister Abby (Piper Rubio).
If Mike doesn’t stay employed, his scheming aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) will take Abby away just to collect child support checks. Mike also suffers from recurring lucid nightmares about the abduction of his young brother Garrett (Lucas Grant); these dreams only grow more troubling and vivid while he’s employed at Freddy’s. Also, the pizzeria’s singing animal robots sometimes come alive at night and might be possessed by ghosts.
Mike’s story probably could never have been as compelling as the sheer presence of Freddy (Kevin Foster), a lumbering animatronic bear, and his pals, Bonnie (Jade Kindar-Martin), Chica (Jess Weiss), Cupcake, and Foxy. Still, why bother with a character-driven story if your source material is a video game whose main charm stems from its players’ ability to explore a haunted and increasingly threatening environment?
Hiring Tammi was a great idea, in theory, since her hallucinatory 2019 horror-western “The Wind” has far more atmosphere than plot. The best parts of “Five Nights at Freddy's" reflect Tammi’s attention to evocative details, which hint at suppressed memories and dark secrets, like soda spilling over a picnic table in Mike’s dream or the blinking light bulbs that line the entrance to Freddy Fazbear’s. There are ultimately too many empty symbols of curdled nostalgia, like fluttering TV monitors, peppy pop songs, and carbon-dated TV commercials. Still, it’s nice to see the filmmakers try this hard to replicate the video games’ focus on analog objects, which, despite their already quaint antiquity, can also take us back to the unremembered past.
“Five Nights at Freddy’s” has most of the right elements for a good post-Amblin kiddy fright-fest, except maybe good dialogue and distinct characters. Watching the movie, one gets the sense that the games’ morbid personality has been sanded down to its most generic jump-scares and banal revelations.
The film's cast sometimes also suggests deeper emotions than their characters are otherwise allowed to express, especially Hutcherson and the woefully underutilized character actor Matthew Lillard, the latter of whom plays a career counselor who hires Mike to work at Freddy’s. It’s otherwise hard to enjoy spending this much time with characters whose relationships only ever develop because the story needs to progress.
You ultimately don’t need to care that much about why Abby bonds so quickly with Freddy and the gang, or why Vanessa knows so much about Freddy. But it might have helped if the movie’s programmatic jump scares and mostly unremarkable performances were more memorable. As it is, the movie is both too fast and too slow to be either shocking or moving enough. “Five Nights at Freddy’s” might satisfy the series’ established fans, but everyone else will have to look elsewhere for fun.
Now playing in theaters and available on Peacock.
Josh Hutcherson as Mike Schmidt
Elizabeth Lail as Vanessa
Piper Rubio as Abby
Mary Stuart Masterson as Aunt Jane
Matthew Lillard as Steve Raglan
Lucas Grant as Garrett
Kevin Foster as Freddy Fazbear (voice)
Jade Kindar-Martin as Bonnie (voice)
Jess Weiss as Chica (voice)
Roger Joseph Manning Jr. as Foxy (voice)