By Brendan Graham
If you’ve been on YouTube within the last decade or have children who are into Let’s Plays, you’ve probably heard of FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S, or FNAF for short. The horror game phenomenon where you play the night guard at a Chucky Cheese-esque pizzeria. The gameplay is simple, you have to survive five nights in the security room battling off the animatronics who want to kill you by conserving power, watching the cameras, and locking them out when they are outside your door. It’s the little indie game that could and thanks to YouTubers like Markiplier, the game exploded with success online, spawning multiple sequels, toys, books, and even a haunted house experience in Vegas a few years back. Kids cannot get enough of Freddy Fazbear and his gang of animal animatronics (Chica, Bonnie, and the frightening Foxy) When it comes to putting this tale on the big screen, the filmmakers ran into the problem of either running with the horror roots of the franchise or toning it down so the younger members of the audience could still join in. While I found it to be surprisingly enjoyable, that’s also where the movie hits its biggest issue: it doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be.
Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson) is struggling to keep a job, keep up with the bills, and take care of his little sister Abby (Piper Rubio). After a mishap at his latest security gig, Mike is desperate for work and is willing to take anything he can get his hands on so his greedy aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) won’t have the grounds to take custody of Abby from him. After meeting with career counselor Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard), Mike lands a nighttime security job guarding the now-defunct Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria with the simple goal of keeping people out because the owner is still too sentimental about the place to let it go. At first, this seems like an easy gig: watch the monitors, keep the place clean, and leave at 6 AM. After meeting police officer Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), Mike discovers there is something darker and more sinister at play at Freddy’s, something that threatens not only himself but also Abby.
To begin with, the animatronics in this film are truly outstanding, a crucial element in this puzzle, crafted with care by the talented team at the Jim Henson Creature Workshop. They not only look impressive but also move convincingly (with some characters even housing actors within them). Initially, they exude playfulness and childlike charm, a fitting reflection of being controlled by the spirits of deceased children. Hutcherson delivers a commendable performance as Mike, a character burdened by life's circumstances and haunted by the abduction of his younger brother when he was just 12. Lail imbues Vanessa with a genuine warmth, while Rubio proves to be an above-average child actor. I always admire the depth of character that Matthew Lillard brings to his roles. The production design for the pizzeria is nothing short of spectacular, authentically evoking the ambiance of a family fun center straight out of the 80s. There are plenty of delightful nods and references to the games, providing fans with easter eggs to point out and look out for on each rewatch.
The story, which revolves around murdered children and possessed animatronics, faces challenges when trying to appeal to both a family-friendly audience and a survival horror fanbase. I will commend them for not leaving out some of the nasty details of the crimes as well as the violence level they still accomplished but the film still struggles to strike a harmonious balance between these demographics, resulting in an uneven tone. It's also regrettable that the primary antagonist is woefully underused throughout the film because they are quite memorable when they get to play.
FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S caters primarily to its dedicated fan base, but it falls short of captivating those who are unfamiliar with the franchise. The film's extended runtime and wavering sense of identity will turn away the average movie-goer as well as turn off most movie critics. As a fan, I still found it an enjoyable experience with all of the right intentions, and I’m hoping they figure out their tone for the next film in the series.
FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S is now playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock.