Five Nights at Freddy’s is an adaptation of the video game franchise of the same name, which has grown into its own massive media empire. Created by Scott Cawthon, the player assumes the role of a night-time security guard for a shuttered restaurant called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a Chuck E. Cheese-esque eatery where evil animatronic mascots come to life. The object is to monitor several security cameras, lights, and doors in order to defend yourself from the animatronics, who see humans as the internal skeletons of the robots missing their costumes. If they catch you, they will force a mascot costume onto you, killing you in the process.
This is a concept that appeals greatly to 90s babies, such as myself. It’s the kind of perverted nostalgia of something so instantly recognizable while also reckoning with the fact that the ubiquity of animatronics in the bygone era didn’t curb how downright creepy they were, with their cartoonish grins and lumbering movements. I recall an afternoon with a friend in high school, where we peered into the window of a closed strip-mall arcade in town. Most of the machines had been removed, and wires were hanging from the ceiling, but what remained were dozens of hand-drawn pictures on the walls. Keep in mind, this arcade had been closed for at least 10 years, so the thoughts of where the kids who drew those pictures were today — coupled with the sheer eeriness brought forth by such innocent time capsules in the middle of an abandoned storefront — littered my mind.
I wish I would’ve known that experience with my friend on that Monday off of school would be scarier than the Blumhouse adaptation of Five Nights at Freddy’s (or even recognize that The Banana Splits Movie might’ve truly been the pinnacle of this concept). I could’ve avoided some serious disappointment.
The terror, jump-scares, and interactive ambiance of the video games is traded for familiarly tedious backstory involving Mike (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games), who desperately needs a job in order to retain custody of his little sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). A creepy career counselor (Matthew Lillard, Scream) hooks him up with a night security guard gig at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, whose owner refuses to bulldoze it despite its closure. The counselor claims that the abandoned fun palace is a target for drug dealers and vandals, but is it them or the lumbering animatronics who Mike should really be afraid of?
That should be all the film needs to get going, but screenwriters Cawthon, Seth Cuddeback, and Emma Tammi don’t know when to quit in the character development department. Yet again, the core of the storyline is trauma. Mike suffers from recurring nightmares of his little brother’s abduction. The dreams become more lucid when he starts sleeping on the job at Freddy’s; he starts seeing ghostly children who might be able to help him find the answers of who took his brother.
That still isn’t enough. There’s also the looming presence of Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson, Daniel Isn’t Real), Mike’s scheming aunt, who is fighting for custody of Abby in order to obtain the welfare checks. Early into his stint at Freddy’s, Mike befriends a cop played by Elizabeth Lail, who not only knows a lot about the shuttered pizzeria but also has little else to do during the night shift besides spend time with him.
Five Nights at Freddy’s boasts an absurd amount of exposition, so much so that it effectively buries the lumbering animatronic mascots, Freddy Fazbear, Chica, Foxy, and Bonnie. The best sequence we get with the dusty murderous robots comes more than 45-minutes into the film, where they murder a group of delinquents intent on trashing the place in order to get Mike fired. Being that the film is PG-13, the bloodshed isn’t too visible, but at that point, any morsel of the mascots carrying out their killing spree is welcomed after what feels like a work-week’s worth of time spent trying to get Mike in the damn restaurant in the first place.
Staying with the mascots — unlike the movie — they are expertly crafted by the Jim Henson Company. Over the past couple years, between this and The Happytime Murders, the Henson Company has put in A+ work for movies with D-grade scripts, a remarkable commitment to quality. It’s not their fault that the animatronic characters have woefully inconsistent behavior. After seeing them trap and kill a worker in the opening minutes of the film, and then murder a group of hooligans, they later help Mike and Abby construct a fort in the pizzeria. Most illogical. Never is there an established set of rules for their behavior.
There is a modest charm present thanks to cinematographer Lyn Moncrief’s do-diligence in making Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza a creepy, analog-laden relic. Flickering TVs, antique video games, and tacky colors permeate the screen, giving life to a simultaneously bloated and underdeveloped movie.
As someone who so often hungers for character development in the movies I watch, I can’t help but feel like somewhat of a hypocrite when criticizing Five Nights at Freddy’s. But there’s a difference between exposition and burying the lead. The move to instill this concept with more narrative leads to a crippling identity crisis further compounded by the middle-ground PG-13 rating. In an effort to court the younger demographic, who helped make these games and graphic novels, Cawthon and company suck the life out of the material and leave a rusted, hollowed-out animatronic corpse in its wake.
NOTE: Five Nights at Freddy’s is now playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock, with a subscription.
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Piper Rubio, Elizabeth Lail, Mary Stuart Masterson, Matthew Lillard, and Kat Connor Sterling. Directed by: Emma Tammi.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!