‘Five Nights At Freddy’s’ Review: Not Worth the Extra Arcade Token

Michael Lee reviews Five Nights At Freddy's, a very mediocre adaptation fo the popular horror-themed video game.
User Rating: 6

Film adaptations of popular video games are still as popular as ever, even with their reputation for being poorly received by fans and critics. It’s a daunting task for any director and writer who has to please the fans and convince those unfamiliar with the game that there’s a compelling story to tell. Director Emma Tammi had to turn the horror-based survivalist game Five Nights At Freddy’s into something that could satisfy the fans and have skeptics surviving the night in a family pizza joint against a group of animatronic characters gone violently rogue.

The basics of the game itself are simple: the player assumes control of a security guard working the overnight shift at a dilapidated family pizza restaurant franchise named “Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza.” The security guard doesn’t know that the animatronic characters in the pizza joint have suddenly gone hostile. So they must use security cameras, lights, doors, and vents to defend themselves against Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie, Foxy, Chica, and Cupcake.

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In the film, Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson) is the guardian of his much younger sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). However, he is traumatized by the kidnapping of his younger brother, Garrett. The only time that he seems to come to terms with his grief is when he sleeps and dreams about the moment his much younger self failed to protect Garrett, and the last ever image was him seeing Garrett’s face being driven off by his captor. So Mike becomes so obsessed with learning about dreams that he becomes dependent on sleeping drugs. Unfortunately, he fails to live up to his potential and works dead-end jobs, only to lose it days or weeks after employment. The instability puts him at risk of losing his only sister to a greedy Aunt Jan (Mary Stuart Masterson) and being evicted from his home.

However, a career counselor, Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard), offers him one more lifeline: a security job at “Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza.” It’s not the most lucrative job; the hours are horrible, and there are hardly any benefits, but it’s the only thing that will help Mike keep custody of his baby sister. So, while it may appear to be an abandoned pizzeria, Mike has to keep intruders out and keep Freddy’s clean. While the job sounds simple, it is much more complex than what Steve pitched. To make things even more complicated, Officer Vanessa Monroe (Elizabeth Lail) conveniently enters the picture, offering help to Mike and providing details about the pizzeria’s bloody history.

While the game embraces the gory and horrific violence that comes with being trapped in a pizza joint inhabited by hostile animatronics, the film adaptation distances itself from all of that to be more accessible to a broader audience. The softer version makes it a gateway horror flick for those who cannot watch the genre. Watching these animatronics gnaw and chow on the silhouette of human victims is scary enough without being scary. The images of these video game-style murders are enough to warrant a few cringes but nothing worth remembering or being scarred for life.

The problem with Five Nights At Freddy’s is that its script is too convoluted for its own good. Mike carried that guilt of losing his brother for years and would do anything to atone for his mistake. Sometimes, it feels like he would rather live in dreams than reality. And it’s only until he starts working at Freddy’s that his dreams become more vivid. And violent. Mike discovers that he can connect with some manifestations and that if he is wounded in the dream, he is also wounded in real life. Eventually, he starts to connect the dots and discovers a connection between his dreams and Freddy’s.

But the film works so hard to connect those dots that it starts to lose interest in what makes these games so appealing in the first place. The characters are underwritten, and the dialogue is so flat that it’s hard to care whether Mike gets to keep custody of his sister or if any of these characters survive a night. There are times when you wish they had died – which is another unfortunate side to these film adaptations of video games, as the audience can’t purposefully drive the character to whatever fate meets them at the game over card. There’s such a discombobulation of trying to pay reverence to the source material and giving audiences a worthwhile horror. It feels like the writers were hoping the loud clanking, noisy gear grinding, occasional jump scares, and semi-terrifying first-person shots into blank spaces were enough to cover the nonsense that crusts over like cheap cheese at a sad family pizzeria.

While the subplot of Mike losing the only family he has left to his greedy aunt adds some family drama, it certainly feels out of place in a horror film like this. Rather than keep us trapped inside an abandoned restaurant filled with murderous animatronics crafted by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the film finds ways for Mike to survive the night. With every new dream, he gets closer to seeing who kidnapped Garrett. So when he’s awake and leaves Freddy’s, the film goes into its tangent subplot about the custody battle, Mike lamenting over the loss of his younger brother, or the shoehorned romance between himself and Officer Vanessa. Moreover, the film tries to have audiences empathize with the animatronics with murderous tendencies by giving them their tragic backstories. These may be attempts to provide a more humanized story to an absurd video game with a considerable cult following. Still, it only does a little to the overall story and adds to the unjustified one-hour and 50-minute runtime.

Another one of the downsides to a film adaptation of a video game is that the interactive experience is taken out of the player’s hands. The gameplay experience is what makes these video games work. Players want their efforts rewarded for their hard work or get a laugh from a grizzly death. Take that away, and it isn’t as fun. Watching players play games on Twitch is even more exciting than this because at least you can see the player’s reactions. But Tammi utilizes the space well by creating the sensation that the characters are trapped in a labyrinth of flickering fluorescent lights, unplugged arcade machines, restaurant furniture, stained carpets, heavy animatronics, and some blood smears.

Victims’ deaths are inventive and somewhat gruesome but also very predictable. But these deaths happen early in the film so that the film could focus on the subplots that don’t matter. Additionally, the coming and goings are so frequent that it feels like Mike is too good at his job keeping people out or the killer animatronics aren’t good at theirs.

Sure, Tammi knows how to construct a good jump scare with all of the usual elements found in a horror film set in an abandoned building, but the script twists itself in knots, adding too many backstories of these characters and trying to create tragic backstories for the killers so that the audience can sympathize with them that it forgets what the games were originally about. Adding some heart to the story is fine, but it only works if the film adaptation of what is supposed to be a horror-based survivalist video game isn’t stuck with a convoluted script.

Five Nights at Freddy’s opens in theaters and will be available to stream on Peacock starting October 27, 2023.

Written by
Michael Lee has covered the film industry for over the past decade for sites like Geeks of Doom and That’s It LA. He looks forward to all kinds of films of all sizes whether it's the commercial blockbusters or small independent fare. But what he is most interested in is pushing for more diversity and representation, whether it is on screen, behind the camera, or at the top of a studio office.

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