Can a work of horror be successful if it’s not especially scary? This is the question that Five Nights at Freddy’s poses. Not just Emma Tammi’s film, but Scott Cawthon’s creation on the whole. The Five Nights at Freddy’s games are fine for a few jump scares. Once you get past those initial jump scares, though, it’s easy to become desensitized. Even at their most formulaic, the games are still creative, atmospheric, and fun. The film isn’t without the inventiveness that put the games on the map. At the same time, Five Nights at Freddy’s can feel late to the party.
That’s not to say the franchise doesn’t have a legion of fans to this day. If Hollywood wanted to capitalize on the games at the peak of their popularity, though, a film should’ve come out around 2016. Then again, 2016 gave us Assassin’s Creed, Ratchet & Clank, and Warcraft. Between The Last of Us and The Super Mario Bros. Movie, 2023 has been a much better year for game adaptations. Beyond the gaming realm, however, Five Nights at Freddy’s is coming out on the heels of The Banana Splits Movie and Willy’s Wonderland. Ironically, the Five Nights games pioneered this creepy animatronics subgenre. Now that a movie is here, it’s playing catch-up.
Even if the timing isn’t ideal, Five Nights at Freddy’s assembles an impressive cast led by Josh Hutcherson as Mike Schmidt. To support his sister Abby, Mike accepts a sketchy security job at an abandoned pizza arcade adorned with cameras, monitors, and Showbiz Pizza hell-spawn. Depending on what the script requires, Abby shifts between being quietly sophisticated and helplessly naive. Nevertheless, young Piper Rubio turns in a charming performance. Elizabeth Lail has solid chemistry with Hutcherson as a cop who might know more about Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza than she lets on. Matthew Lillard has a ball as Mike’s career counselor, but the scene-stealers are naturally Freddy and his band of rampaging robots.
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop turns in some of their best recent work, bringing Freddy to life with seemingly no CGI. While the practical effects are first-rate, Freddy isn’t allowed to go unhinged thanks to a PG-13 rating. Aside from one kill about halfway through the picture, much of the violence lacks bite. Granted, the games were never that gory, relying more on psychological creeps. Since the audience isn’t constantly checking a monitor to stay ahead of Freddy, though, the film doesn’t have that psychological edge. Why not compensate with over-the-top bloodshed, especially when you have a character like Mike’s greedy aunt asking for a brutal end? Violence aside, much of the script is sanitized. When an adult character sees one of the animatronics, her response is, “What the heck?” Most PG-13 movies will allow one f-bomb. This one couldn’t even give us a “hell.”
If you’re a diehard Five Nights at Freddy’s fan, chances are you’ll look past the film’s flaws and appreciate the various in-jokes. If you’re looking for a film first and foremost, Five Nights at Freddy’s isn’t quite scary, funny, or fresh enough to wholly recommend. Optimistically, the inevitable sequel might follow the trajectory of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which improved upon its predecessor. For now, Five Nights at Freddy’s plays more like a trial run that’s about seven years behind. Maybe it’ll be more entertaining watching Markiplier’s reaction video.