How did a point-and-click indie horror game become one of the biggest multimedia sensations of the last decade? No jump scare could be more surprising than the sheer runaway success of Five Nights at Freddy’s. At the same time, it’s not so hard to see what the fuss is about. The first game especially is a novel and ingenious assault on the nerves. Set in an abandoned Chuck E. Cheese-style pizzeria where the animatronic attractions lurch to life at night, the original FNaF drew its cruel power from how helpless it left the player feeling. You have no weapons, no escape route, nothing but a limited range of defensive actions, all linked to a rapidly depleting power source. It was an exercise in nightmare minimalism – a surveillance simulator of doom. The fanbase was deserved, if still unfathomably massive.
That this relentlessly milked cash cow and merchandising gold mine would eventually be turned into a movie was inevitable. So, too, were the challenges facing any filmmaker attempting to bring Freddy and his roving robot friends from monitor to silver screen. A master of suspense, like John Carpenter in his prime, could maybe have preserved the single-setting claustrophobia – that sense of being locked in one place as evil approaches from all sides. What we get instead from director and co-writer Emma Tammi, producer Jason Blum, and the game’s original creator, Scott Cawthon, is a Five Nights at Freddy’s that’s been opened up in multiple respects, none of them agreeable.
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Out of viable occupational options after mistaking a bad dad for a kidnapper at the mall, security guard Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson) reluctantly agrees to work the graveyard shift watching over the long-shuttered ’80s eatery Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, where the synthetic entertainers prove less… immobile than one might hope. Mike arguably has bigger problems than the fearsome oversized animal mascots stomping around his new workplace. If he doesn’t get his act together, he might lose custody of his kid sister (Piper Rubio) to his cartoonishly villainous aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson). We know she’s a monster, organic rather than mechanical, because she’s rude to service workers: “Are you being paid by the word?” she quips at a waiter. Given the volume of superfluous gab, you might ask the screenwriters the same thing.
As if premature orphanhood weren’t enough, Mike is also haunted by the childhood disappearance of his little brother, who was snatched during a day at the park and never seen again. Yes, contemporary horror’s obsession with trauma has breached even the colorful walls of Freddy’s. Hutcherson’s hero will spend much more time grappling with his demons – and talking to ghosts, figurative and literal – than he will be scanning staticky monitors for signs of herky-jerky movement. Who invited the therapist to the pizza party?
It’d be nice to report that all this laborious melodrama is just the setup for fun-center fun. The movie’s heart monitor does briefly, faintly spike once Mike actually settles into security detail inside the deserted restaurant, a flickering neon graveyard of a play place. Rather than lock us into a nightmarish night shift, though, this Five Nights keeps scanning for an exit. No sooner are we on Freddy’s turf than we’re back in suburbia, watching Mike fight for custody or entertain a quasi-romance with a local cop (Elizabeth Lail) so full of helpful tidbits of backstory that they could have named her Officer Exposition. Here, the title proves less of a promise of escalating nocturnal danger than an excuse to break up the supposed horror with endless daytime soap.
There’s somehow too much and not enough of the animatronics. Created by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, they naturally look pretty cool – both faithful to the game design and credible, physical machinery, like something you might have scarring memories of seeing in the ’80s or ’90s. But the movie doesn’t seem entirely sure of how scary it’s allowed to make them. Yes, tweens will see this PG-13 horror movie, but they also play the games, and the robots are rather frightening there – in part, it must be said, because you only ever see them locked in staring place, waiting for you to look away before they move again, à la those statue phantoms from Doctor Who. Here, they kind of lumber around like Barney, shedding menace by the heavy footstep. And the movie makes a huge miscalculation in turning them into misunderstood monsters, with an origin story that’s technically from the games but deflating in adaptation.
There was a mockbuster version of this premise a few years ago: the zero-budget Willy’s Wonderland, starring an unusually silent Nicolas Cage and some off-brand mascot beasties. That movie was pure junk, a transparent attempt to will a cult film into existence. But in its chintzy, bottom-dollar way, it better capitalized on the appeal of Five Nights at Freddy’s: the retro-cheese-gone-bad vibes of the locale, the mechanical gait of the monsters, the sense of a nostalgic memory of family fun corrupted by unholy forces. This more polished, authorized take has the official Freddy seal, but little else going for it; the sadistic thrill of the game disappears under a mountain of plot. If it came first, there would be no Five Nights empire to exploit.