Now streaming on Peacock, and reportedly making a killing in theaters, the new video game adaptation Five Nights At Freddy’s may work as fan service for those who love the source material but won’t work for those looking for a satisfying horror movie. It doesn’t seem like it should be difficult to make a creepy movie about murderous animatronic robots — after all, Nicolas Cage starred in one (Willy’s Wonderland) a couple years ago — but director and co-writer Emma Tammi just doesn’t give this film what it needs. Stifled by too much exposition and heavy-handed character work, this could have worked as a lean-and-mean R-rated slasher but it flounders as an overwrought PG-13 ghost story. Unless its wall-to-wall fan service is meant to register as scary, I can’t imagine many will be spooked by this, even during the spookiest of all the seasons.
Five Nights At Freddy’s follows Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson), a troubled mall cop who loses his gig after a violent misunderstanding with a civilian during his shift. Desperate to look after his younger sister Abby (Piper Rubio) with their parents out of the picture and their aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) threatening a custody battle, Mike hastily takes a night guard position at an abandoned family entertainment center. Aside from a copious consignment of cobwebs, the Chuck E. Cheese facsimile sports a set of seemingly-defunct animatronic mascots, led by the top-hatted Freddy Fazbear. Mike’s first couple nights are uneventful, with fellow police officer Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail) showing up to keep him company, but eventually things go bump in the night and it’s up to Mike, Vanessa and Abby to investigate.
Scream alum Matthew Lillard pops up in a few scenes as a career counselor and serves as a sore reminder of a horror franchise that has an infinite amount of more humor and self-awareness than Five Nights At Freddy’s. Hutcherson does what he can to prop up the patchwork pathos behind his character but the childhood trauma material isn’t a good fit for a film that is supposed to revolve around killer robots. His repetitive dream sequences call to mind another horror series with a villain named Freddy at its center but the gloved nemesis of the Nightmare On Elm Street movies has a devilish persona that kept audiences coming back for decades. I’m not sure quite what this film has that will lead to that sort of longevity within the cinematic medium.
When Freddy and his autonomous crew do pop up, the film at least has more of a sense of menace than the ghost children that haunt Mike during his dream state and then his waking hours. Kudos to Blumhouse Productions and Tammi for getting Jim Henson’s Creature Shop involved with bringing the demented robo-critters to life. Even though the characters aren’t in the movie enough, the animatronics and puppeteering brings a tactility and presence to the Freddy’s foes that would have been lacking severely had they chosen CG effects instead. There’s a grueling sequence involving the spring locks inside one of the mascot’s outfits that was an effective piece of mechanical terror one may expect out of a Hellraiser entry. Sadly, the rest of Five Nights At Freddy’s is mostly anodyne by comparison.
If Blumhouse wanted to keep this film PG-13 to retain the core audience of teenage gamers, then I understand not making it an ultra-violent gorefest but is it too much to ask it to at least be creepy or unsettling? After all, not every horror movie has to be rated R and there are loads of examples that succeed with less severe ratings. I was shocked how little foreboding or tension there is in the build-up to the reveal of the Freddy’s crew, despite the film’s best intentions with a razor-sharp cold open. Regardless, Five Nights At Freddy’s has already made back quadruple its budget in box office sales, so there’s little doubt we’ll have more of these on the horizon. Perhaps they’ll find more clever and mischievous uses for the pizzeria-dwelling droids in the sequels but this inaugural entry gets things off to a creaky start.
Score – 2/5
New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is What Happens Later, a romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and David Duchovny about a pair of exes who, after bumping into each other when their flights get delayed due to a snow storm, spend the night at the airport reliving their past.
Premiering on Netflix is Nyad, a sports biopic starring Annette Bening and Jodie Foster about athlete Diana Nyad who, at the age of 60 and with the help of her best friend and coach, commits to achieving her life-long dream: a 110-mile open ocean swim from Cuba to Florida.
Streaming on Hulu is Quiz Lady, a comedy starring Awkwafina and Sandra Oh about a gameshow-obsessed woman and her estranged sister who work together to help cover their mother’s gambling debts.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup