The inexplicable rise of the Five Nights at Freddy’s series is something that I don’t think I’ll ever understand.
Released in 2014, the original game exploded in popularity and quickly took the internet by storm as a horror sensation. Within the span of a year, five games were released, each with its own complex interconnected lore that had people online theorizing and hypothesizing what was going on. Shortly after, the series became associated with children’s horror for some very odd reason and now the franchise has exploded in popularity with additional games, a frankly mind-boggling amount of books, extensive lore videos that put multiple Youtubers on the map, and finally, a feature film.
Despite being announced several years ago, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Five Nights at Freddy’s has had a rough production cycle. Between the multiple different versions of the scripts and the numerous directors attached to the project, it’s a minor miracle that the film was even made, especially given the extensive history of video game adaptations being canceled. That doesn’t change the fact that the final product is very inconsistent and feels like the result of several different scripts being stitched together. It’s not as bad as other horror movies that have come out this October, but when the bar has been set this low, it’s not saying much.
Damn, Halloween this year really sucks. Where are the good horror movies???
Five Nights at Freddy’s
Director: Emma Tammi
Release Date: October 27, 2023 (Theatrical/Peacock)
Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson) is down on his luck. After his brother was kidnapped when he was a child, his family slowly began to fall apart with him being the only one left to take care of his younger sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). Unfortunately, because he can’t seem to hold down a job and with his greedy aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson) looking to claim Abby through social services, Mike goes to a career counselor (Matthew Lillard) to find some steady income. He recommends working at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria as a security guard during the night shift. What he fails to disclose, however, is that the four animatronic animals that reside there are possessed by the spirits of dead children who are all too eager to kill and harm any who enter the pizzeria.
As a PG-13 horror movie, Five Nights at Freddy’s is limited in what it can show and depict, but that doesn’t mean the film can’t be scary. Plenty of PG-13 horror movies exist, and while some of them are absolute trash, there are plenty that work. Five Nights at Freddy’s falls into the former category… I think. It’s difficult to talk about the movie as a horror film because while the concepts and set-up are there for a horror movie, the film seems adverse to actually doing anything scary with its concept.
Most of the film is centered around Mike and the custody issues he faces with Abby as well as him wanting closure for the disappearance of his brother. While these issues are eventually tied to his job at the pizzeria, so much focus is placed on these elements that it’s almost as if the movie forgets that the story is supposed to be about killer animatronics. It spends a lot of time giving Mike a backstory and fleshing out his family life, but it actually forgets to make him or the situation he’s in interesting. It just serves to delay the time our cast spends in the pizzeria, and therefore away from any of the actual horror.
Even when we do reach the pizzeria and we’re going to theoretically see some scary imagery, the film bizarrely makes a tonal shift into a light-hearted family film. Not even fifteen minutes after we see the animatronics kill a group of robbers (off-screen of course, this is a PG-13 movie), we then see a fun montage of all of the characters, including the murderous animatronics, building a fort in the restaurant for them all to hang out and play in! Is it a wholesome moment? A little bit, yeah. Should it be in a film revolving around murdered children? Probably not. Most of the scenes in the middle of the film have this weird family-friendly tone that feels like it’s there to assuage parents that this series is child-friendly and not too gruesome or scary.
I don’t necessarily have a problem with horror series or franchises aimed at children, like the new Goosebumps series, but they’re at least consistent with their tone and don’t feel scattershot. Five Nights at Freddy’s doesn’t really do anything other than convey the basic ideas of its franchise and is content to just lifelessly string together moments that will please fans but underwhelm general audiences. Knowledge of the games isn’t mandatory to enjoy Five Nights at Freddy’s, which is ultimately a point in the film’s favor since it’s not filled with impregnable lore. I decided to watch this film with friends and as the only person who knew some of the references, I had to explain to them the significance of something like Balloon Boy. Knowing who or what he is didn’t hinder their ability to watch the film, so overall I think the bones the team at Blumhouse threw to the fans were done well enough.
That is, until, the end of the film starts to rear its ugly head. As the film reaches its climax, there are a handful of twists that feel like they came right out of nowhere and had very little build-up or logical foundation. We just had to accept characters needed to make poor decisions to progress the plot or else we wouldn’t have a climax. Even then, the climax we were railroaded into doesn’t fully utilize its premise or concept as the animatronics take a back seat to a sudden human conflict. For a movie that features and stars killer animatronics, ones that were commissioned and developed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, they’re sorely underutilized and are limited in what they can do.
In a scene towards the middle of the film, we see one of the animatronics, Foxy, stand menacingly at the end of a hall with the intent of running towards a character and killing them. Because of the limitations of the animatronics, we’re instead given a first-person POV of Foxy running toward his victims as they scream. It comes across as cheap and even when the horror is meant to be there, it’s so neutered that the animatronics just aren’t scary. They’re not even effective monsters for our protagonists to fear since the film spends so much time humanizing them and offering a convoluted explanation for why they attack people in the first place.
For as much as I try not to read other reviews of films before I write my own, even I’ve heard of how this movie has been mauled by critics and while I don’t think that all of the criticism that this film has garnered is undeserved, I also think it’s overexaggerated. The film has plenty of issues, but it’s not a disaster by any means. It does play it exceptionally safe and rarely if ever rocks the boat, but it has moments of genuine empathy that somewhat resonate. The animatronics themselves, for as little as they’re actually utilized, look well made, and when the film actually does try to scare you in the rare moments it remembers it’s a horror movie, the shot composition and framing are effective enough. Again, it’s not scary, it’s about as scary as a low-budget haunted house, but at least the film kind of understands how it could be scary.
It’s not a surprise that Five Nights at Freddy’s was released both theatrically and straight-to-streaming. If I had to pay money to see this film then I probably would be more upset with how limited it is and the truly bizarre tone that it has. But as a straight-to-streaming film, I’ve seen worse and my friends and I did have fun riffing on the movie, like how we’ve determined Mike’s family only eats bowls of ketchup due to his dad’s adoration of it. I don’t know what it says about the movie that we had more fun making fun of it than actually watching it and the film definitely isn’t good, but if you’re a long-time fan of the series or a parent who has to go see it with their kid, it’s harmless enough. If you actually want to see this concept fully executed though, go see Willy’s Wonderland. That movie’s fun as hell and worth a watch.