Five Nights at Freddy’s (2023)
Director: Emma Tammi
Screenwriters: Scott Cawthon, Seth Cuddeback, Emma Tammi
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Lail, Piper Rubio, Mary Stuart Masterson, Matthew Lillard
Five Nights at Freddy’s has had quite the opening weekend. According to Forbes, the family-friendly horror-comedy based on the popular survival horror video game series of the same name has set the record for highest opening day sales of any video game adaptation ever. With a domestic box office of $78million, it is also the biggest horror debut of 2023, outperforming movies from more recognizable franchises like Scream VI, which grossed just over $44million in its opening weekend, and Saw X ($18.3million). For a video game series that spans 13 games and over two dozen books, with countless hours of YouTube videos dedicated to explaining the still expanding lore, it’s not hard to see why audiences have responded so strongly. Passionate fans will no doubt get a kick out of seeing the video game come to life on the big screen, collecting all of those Easter eggs like their lives depend on it, but if you strip all of that away and take the film for what it is, Five Nights of Freddy’s fails in translating to the screen what made the video game so unnerving and popular in the first place.
With its convoluted, confusing plot and uneven tone, the film fails in striking that perfect balance between horror and comedy and camp that made recent releases like M3GAN so successful and refreshing.
In the film, Josh Hutcherson plays a version of the main character from the first game, Mike Schmidt, whom the filmmakers attempt to humanize by giving him a very unnecessary backstory. His younger brother, Garrett, was kidnapped when they were children and Mike has struggled with that loss ever since. He spends most of his time popping sleeping pills that induce lucid dreams of the day his brother was taken, convinced they hold the key to figuring out what happened to him. Things go from bad to worse when Mike gets into an altercation with a customer at his mall security job and is in danger of losing custody of his younger sister Abbey (Piper Rubio) to his estranged Aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson).
Out of options, Mike seeks help from a very suspicious career counselor (Matthew Lillard) who offers him a night security job at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, an abandoned family fun restaurant that shut down in the 1980s after five children mysteriously disappeared. The job is simple: stay vigilant and keep people out. But Mike soon learns that the giant animatronic animals that inhabit the vacant building come alive at night. In the game, the player must keep watch over the security cameras, careful not to miss when something moves, and they must decide when to use the lights and close the doors, knowing full well that their power supply is limited. It’s scary, and the game uses that fear to get the player to panic and to use too much power. The player only breathes a sigh of relief when the clock strikes 6 a.m. But in the film, Mike just… sleeps through most of the nights. He barely watches the security cameras, barely pays even the slightest bit of attention to his surroundings. It’s this indifference that makes the film such a slog to get through. The stakes could not be lower. Five Nights uses analog equipment as set dressing, a nod to the games, without stopping to figure out how that technology could be used to unsettle its audience.
The film doesn’t even seem that interested in the animatronics themselves, which should be its selling point. They’re rarely used to scare us. And, because we’re not frightened of them, seeing them on screen becomes less and less impactful as the film goes on. Instead, the Five Nights at Freddy’s chooses to focus on Mike and his family drama, which takes up the entire first act of the movie. Mike’s need to uncover the mystery of his little brother’s disappearance and his desire to keep custody of his sister are two narrative threads that don’t fit together and it often feels like Hutcherson is in an entirely different movie. He tries in vain to give Mike some depth, but with such a weak script his efforts don’t make that much of a difference.
Five Nights at Freddy’s might delight fans of the video game series who like when movies reference things for two hours straight, but it will probably be confusing to casual fans or those who’ve never played the games. The movie seems to assume that the entire audience is made up a rabid fans because the filmmakers don’t even bother to delve into the horrifying history of the restaurant itself or the children who disappeared. The movie doesn’t set things up because it assumes you’ve done your homework. But it’s hard to understand why they wouldn’t take advantage of the nostalgic 1980s setting, with the pinball machines and wacky colors. Instead, the movie opens with a security guard being murdered by the animatronics, which serves no purpose other than being a glorified cameo for Youtuber Markiplier, which the creator ultimately couldn’t film due to scheduling conflicts. The sequence is still in the film though, so poor Elizabeth Lial is tasked with trying to explain the creepy history of Freddy’s halfway through the movie via the clunkiest of dialog.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is a movie that fails to do much of anything. It isn’t scary. It isn’t funny. And it isn’t campy. Instead of letting go and giving in to the absurdity of the premise, the filmmakers took themselves entirely too seriously and failed to capture what was so special about the games. The nods and references to the video game series that started it all might be enough to please some long-time players, but fan service can only get you so far.