THE STORY – A troubled security guard begins working at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria. While spending his first night on the job, he realizes the late shift at Freddy’s won’t be so easy to make it through.
THE CAST – Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Lail, Kat Conner Sterling, Piper Rubio, Mary Stuart Masterson & Matthew Lillard
THE TEAM – Emma Tammi (Director/Writer), Scott Cawthon & Seth Cuddeback (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
It was only a matter of time before “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” the wildly popular horror video game series, was adapted to some sort of visual medium. The games have been frightening and thrilling players for nearly a decade, leading to massive success, comic and book spin-offs, and a huge fanbase. Luckily for said fans, a good portion of whom are younger, the film adaptation is PG-13. While horror buffs often see this categorization as a warning of lesser quality, plenty of scary movies have managed to terrify audiences without an R-rating (just this year, the effective Stephen King adaptation “The Boogeyman” did just that). However, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” is not one of them. The scares are limited, not just because the filmmaker is clearly working to achieve a rating that will allow a wider audience to buy a ticket. In fact, the scariest thing about the movie is the screenplay, which centers around an overly complex, nonsensical backstory that bogs down what should be a fun, dark ride of nostalgia-tinged terror.
Our central character, Mike (Josh Hutcherson), is struggling. He can’t hold onto a job, money is tight, and he’s at risk of losing custody of his younger sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). Suddenly, a less-than-desirable job falls into his lap, working overnight security shifts at an abandoned pizza restaurant. Mike strongly wants to avoid night jobs, but in an act of desperation, he takes it. What seems like an easy gig turns out to be much more than he bargained for. The restaurant is actually home to several large, eerie animatronic animals that used to entertain families back in the heyday of the 1980s. They’ve since been left to rot with no audience to perform for, and they seem to be getting a bit restless…
What makes the game – at least, the first one – so effective is its simplicity. As a player, you’re simply trapped in a security room, watching monitors for movement from the creepy animatronics. The atmosphere is tense and terrifying, and the designs of the robotic creatures perfectly call to mind the warm yet uneasy memories players may have of Chuck E. Cheese-style mascots. The film version is obviously unable to replicate this exact claustrophobic setting; movies typically need more to them than that. But what the film adaptation does to expand the game to a more cinematic scope only makes the whole endeavor feel strangely bloated. Once Mike begins to learn the truth behind his new workplace, the film begins piling on backstory, exposition, and explanations. Without giving anything away, things are more complicated than the already bizarre premise outlined in the trailer – namely, that Freddy and his friends are brought to life by the ghosts of dead children. These spirits may also be trying to help Mike solve the mystery of his younger brother’s abduction years prior. Oh, and the robots are hungry for humans. Or maybe they’re just territorial. The film lays out so much for what could’ve and should’ve been a simple, creepy story. The “Five Nights at Freddy’s” universe is so expansive that these disparate elements may be true to the lore, but only the most devoted fans can speak to that. For casual moviegoers, it’s a lot to take in.
The screenplay also does a disservice to the characters. Mike has a tragic past and realistic adult troubles that would be right at home in an Oscar-aiming drama. Hutcherson, therefore, is practically forced to play him with as much realistic gravitas as possible while also being tasked with absurd lines of dialogue about haunted killer robots. It’s a surprisingly tricky task for any actor, and Hutcherson can’t entirely overcome the script’s confused character dynamics. But even worse is Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), a local police officer who begins accompanying Mike on his overnight shifts. Frankly, her character makes no sense. She obviously knows more than she lets on and is intentionally holding back significant revelations. But once those truths are brought to light, it’s impossible not to question the logic behind her characters’ ways. Her methodology is confounding. Lail does her best to give the character a plucky energy that makes her easy to root for, but there’s simply no overcoming her character’s unwieldy writing.
Luckily, two veteran actors are given supporting roles that allow them to perfectly exploit their scene-stealing talents. Mary Stuart Masterson is delicious as Aunt Jane, a modern-day equivalent of a wicked stepmother. Her roots are coming in, her fashion is questionable, and all her line deliveries are dipped in poison. Matthew Lillard has a welcome cameo as Steve, the career counselor who gets Mike his security guard job. Lillard is fully committed to the role and gives every line of dialogue a level of idiosyncratic menace that’s always entertainingly enigmatic.
One of the many aspects of the game that’s led to its success is its replication of family-themed restaurants of the not-too-distant past. In that area, the film is entirely faithful and successful. Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria is well-designed and full of period-appropriate adornments. And best of all, the animatronics themselves are spectacular. Brought to life by the legendary Jim Henson Creature Shop, the quartet of anthropomorphized animals are massive and impressive. They move perfectly, calling to mind the uncanny, rigid movements of outdated robotics. It’s a relief and a delight to see giant practical puppets used when cheap, shoddy CGI could’ve easily been employed to lesser effect.
Outside of a handful of startling jump scares, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” isn’t anywhere near as scary as the games it’s based on. Add to that an overstuffed narrative and ridiculous human characters, and this movie proves to be as creaky as a Reagan-era robot.