‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ review: Who is this for?

Yes, yes, video game movies are made for fans of the games. And as Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights at Freddy’s, a point-and-click survival game from 2014, went on to spawn not only a slew of sequels, spinoffs, novelizations, and much, much merch, you might understandably assume its movie adaptation would be aimed to please its many, many fans. But which ones?

Those who seek something playfully scary? Those who want to get up close to live-action versions of the creepy yet cuddly animatronic monsters at its center? Those who want something silly and fun with loads of spookiness? 

Well, if you want any of that, you’re sure to be disappointed. Five Nights At Freddy’s gets so bogged down in a soggy plotline about dream theory, guilt, and child custody that it forgets to be entertaining.

Five Nights at Freddy’s is burdened with too much backstory. 

Credit: Universal Pictures

Like the first game, Five Nights at Freddy’s follows Mike Schmidt (played here by Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson), a security guard tasked with watching after a Chuck E. Cheese-like pizzeria/arcade that has long been closed. Inside, there’s faulty electricity, dusty pinball machines, and towering, rotting animatronic critters that are meant to play ’80s rock songs on their prop instruments. However, these robo-rockers are possessed —Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie, Chica, Foxy, and Carl the Cupcake are driven to murder intruders.

The simple setup works well in the games without much additional exposition. But in penning the screenplay, Cawthon and collaborators Chris Lee Hill, Tyler MacIntyre, Seth Cuddeback, and Emma Tammi (who also directs) determined it necessary to explain why Mike would go back, night after night, to a place where adorably evil robots are actively trying to kill him. Fair enough. Financial straits might have been reason enough, because in this economy… But this script piles on the details, like a nervous liar. Not only does Mike need a steady income to maintain custody of his troubled kid sister Abby (Piper Rubio), but there’s also a tragic backstory about how Mike witnessed his little brother being kidnapped on a family camping trip years before. 

Money alone isn’t keeping Mike coming back to the creepy arcade. He’s also on a quest to interrogate his personal dreamscape to find clues to catch this mysterious abductor. And hey, he just sleeps better on this job, okay? 

What all this means for Five Nights at Freddys is tedious scenes about the custody battle against Mike’s sinister aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson), his plaintive interview with a career counselor (Scream’s Matthew Lillard), and sessions with a child therapist. Plus, there are plenty of scenes of his falling-asleep routine and flashbacks to that terrible day, plus Mike explaining all of this to multiple characters. And all that means that this movie pushes freaky Freddy Fazbear and his creepy cohorts to the fringes of its plot. Sure, they play a part. But the actual anarchy wrought by animatronics makes up a frustratingly small portion of this movie. Lost amid Mike working out his various issues, the iconic characters become little more than uninspired guest appearances. 

Five Nights at Freddy’s just isn’t scary. 

Credit: Universal Pictures

Blame it on the focus on Mike’s maudlin family dramas. While the movie starts off solid enough, with a shadowy cold open of an unnamed security guard fleeing in terror from some strangely silhouetted stalker (with fox ears!), most of the movie is devoid of tension. For one thing, we know Mike needs to make it to night five because the title tells us so; the nights leading up feel like padding for a fuzz-flying finale. For another, the mythos behind these malevolent yet playful beasts is unrolled so slowly that it’s a bore. By the time actual stakes come into play, you may well have mentally exited this arena. 

The actual scare tactics are woefully stock: Spooky shadows, jump scares involving flickering lights and chattering robot teeth, some creepy kids, and conservative sprays of blood. This is, after all, a PG-13 movie. But there’s nothing here worth screaming about or eerie enough to linger into nightmares. 

That’s shocking, chiefly because Tammi helmed the seriously scary supernatural indie The Wind, which centered on a 19th-century frontierswoman plagued by bizarre howls in the night that might just be a demon. There, Tammi used haunting sound design and the terror of what’s unseen to harrow her audience. Here, she’s given a batch of much-beloved freaky figures that, by their very popularity, demand the spotlight — even if they’re scarier in the shadows. Rejecting the rule of Jaws, that less is more, we’ll see plenty of these monsters, with them becoming less and less mysterious and scary with every frame.

To the credit of the performers and puppeteers, Freddy and his posse are believably lifelike, with steps robotic yet firm. But they are just not scary for grown-ups who once knew all too well the bizarre entertainment of Charles Entertainment Cheese and his rip-off cousins like ShowBiz Pizza’s Billy Bob. Those things didn’t murder people (that we were aware of), but look at those smiles and tell me you didn’t suspect they could.

Five Nights at Freddy’s fails to play to kids or grown-ups.

Credit: Universal Pictures

If you grew up on these games, you may well thrill at having some of the sensations revisited in the cinema. But if you’ve ever seen a haunted house movie or a slasher, you’ll be all too familiar with the beats of scares to be surprised. I’m sorry to say I never jumped, screamed, or even gasped. And maybe that’d be okay if this PG-13-rated horror film was mainly meant to appeal to kids; keeping things cliched and pretty light on onscreen violence and gore would make sense. But if this is intended for kids, then why all the beleaguering backstory about Mike’s trauma and his struggle to keep custody of his sister? If that stuff is boring to an adult, will an adolescent have more patience for it? I doubt it. 

There are moments when Five Nights at Freddy‘s scratches at its cross-demographic charmer potential. Embracing its creepy-cute aesthetic, roaming shots of the arcade are promising. Zinging close-ups of the characters are intriguing. But the screenplay gives no depth to these characters and is so distracted by the Schmidt family saga that it’s impossible to kick back and cruise on the spooky vibes. Even the third act’s twists fall short of thrilling because they are painfully predictable — even if you don’t know the game lore.

Perhaps if the movie had fully committed to the the kid sister, Five Nights at Freddy‘s could have played more like the PG-13-rated creepy kid/terrifying toy romp M3GAN, which was also from Blumhouse and Universal Pictures. If Mike was less a sad sack and more of a rascally bastard, we could have powered through with some Howard The Duck energy. If the backstory took a backseat to an escape plot and creature-feature thrills, it might have felt more like Gremlins. But as it is, all of these movies are far superior gateways to the genre for horror-curious kids.

In the end, Five Nights at Freddy’s is just another forgettable video game movie that fails to bring the thrills of play into the theater. 

Five Nights at Freddy’s is now in theaters.

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