Fans of the horror video game phenomenon have been eagerly anticipating the feature film expansion of the Five Nights at Freddy’s universe. With nine video games, a trilogy of novels, and an anthology series comprising of almost a decade of FNaF lore from creator Scott Cawthon, it was inevitable that story of the hostile animatronics that haunt the halls of the fictional Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza would end up on the silver screen. And the team behind the cinematic adaptation of this beloved IP is none other than a staple name in the horror genre, producer Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Studios.
Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games) is haunted by the abduction of his little brother that took place in broad daylight when they were both young children. Obsessed with trying to remember the fact of his brother’s captor, every time he sleeps, Mike attempts various methods of dream hacking to take him back to that horrifically fateful day and painstakingly recollect the events leading up to the abduction. Outside of his hellscape dreamworld, Mike cares for his younger sister, Abby, of which the two have a distanced relationship that is being torn apart by their Aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson, Daniel Isn’t Real), who is vying for custody of Abby.
Mike’s inability to hold down a job due to his personal issues leads him to the offices of career counsellor Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard, Scream), who sets a reluctant Mike up with a job as a night shift security guard for a rundown, defunct, and abandoned family entertainment restaurant called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Using the nights to continue his dream search for his brother’s kidnapper, Mike unwillingly discovers a terrifying secret about the restaurant – the four animatronic mascots have the ability to come to life and will kill anyone in their way.
The elephant in the room is that in 2021, Nicolas Cage starred in Willy’s Wonderland – a comedic horror film that screenwriter G.O. Parsons claims was heavily inspired by Five Nights at Freddy’s. A night shift worker looks after an abandoned pizzeria that is inhabited with nocturnal, killer animatronic characters. And while that film wasn’t perfect, it gained a cult status because it was an outlandishly wild and fun time. Five Nights at Freddy’s, while most likely very true to the source material, especially with franchise creator Scott Cawthon credited for his contribution to the screenplay, takes itself far too seriously and is a jumbled mess of plot points and genre tropes that ultimately takes away the potential enjoyment factor of a premise this insane.
There are two warring horror elements at play with Five Nights at Freddy’s script. On one hand, there is an intriguing psychological thriller about the gut-wrenching guilt that Mike lives with due to his neglectful involvement in his brother’s disappearance. Mike’s desperation to find the kidnapper leads to some interesting ideas about using dreams as a form of investigation, and the emotional toll it takes on someone who is so dedicated to neglecting their health to rid themselves of the guilt. This plot line leans into a larger murder mystery involving more missing children that easily could have served as on over arching narrative for the film.
Then on the other hand is the slasher film about demonic animatronic robot killers who rip people to shreds. Unfortunately, the ripping and tearing by Freddy (a bear), Bonnie (a rabbit), Chica (a duck), and Foxy (well… a fox), is hindered by its M classification (PG-13 in the United States), restricting any potential gore-fests of robotic murder to predominately off-screen kills, or just close calls for the lucky victims.
Five Nights at Freddy’s plays around in both sandboxes of these plotlines, but never dedicates to either one enough to fully develop any substance to them. Despite a strong attempt at connecting the two plotlines for the finale, it leads to more divisiveness than cohesion.
It also doesn’t help that Hutcherson’s performance is as dull and exhausting as the pacing of the film. Now, credit where it is due, his excessively terrible sleeping pattern being an integral part to both Mike as a character and to the dream hacking plot line are the root cause of the drained performance. But even that excuse has its limit, and Hutcherson’s performance can venture past that ceiling to the point where Mike just seems bored by everything that is happening around him, and doesn’t necessarily make for engaging viewing, or relatability to Mike.
There’s an unevenness to the supporting performances, specifically Matthew Lillard and Mary Stuart Masterson, who are camping up their characters, almost like they belong in a film that would take an absurd horror premise and have some fun with it. But, with the film’s serious tone, these dedicatedly fun performances are wasted. Even when Elizabeth Lail, who plays a local police officer named Vanessa, plays her role with sincerity, the lame and often cringey dialogue doesn’t necessarily elevate the performances.
Serving as the second feature film from director Emma Tammi, there is a solid attempt at creating a unique visual styling for this world. The neon lights, pinball machines and arcade games, along with some stylistic camera movements give more life to Five Nights at Freddy’s that the story itself does. Tammi seemingly has funny attempting to create tension or showcase some mildly disturbing imagery, and her visual ability to distinguish the real world from Mike’s dream world is deserving of praise.
What Five Nights at Freddy’s does get absolutely right is the fantastic work done by lead designer Robert Bennett and the team at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in creating phenomenal looking, practical effects driven animatronics for Freddy and his gang. Whether it’s full electronic, or a hybrid suit with a stunt performer inside, there’s never a moment where these machines look cheap, out of place, or even worse, poorly generated by a computer. The presence of these animatronics, when on screen, is hard to ignore, both due to their overbearing size, and their creepy, dead, plastic eyes that 1000-yard stare straight into the souls of those brave enough to look into them.
The most unfortunate takeaway for Five Nights at Freddy’s is that the outstanding practical effects, the design of Freddy and the other killer animatronics, director Emma Tammi’s reasonably solid attempt at creating a unique visual flair, and the bare bones of two interesting types of horror film, just don’t add anywhere near up to an enjoyable overall experience. It’s a disappointing attempt of yet another video game adaptation. But perhaps the plethora of Easter eggs and cameos for die hard fans of the franchise will do enough to bring in the box office dollars, and may just be enough to see this franchise continue.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is in Australian cinemas October 26th, courtesy of Universal Pictures.
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