3 out of 5 stars

“Was that the bite of ’87?!” YouTuber Markiplier’s iconic words encapsulate the fervour of the Five Nights at Freddy’s fandom. But this quote has become a double-edged sword in the ever-expanding lore of Scott Cawthon’s original 2014 indie video game. New twists and turns have cast doubt on who bit whom, where, and even whether it happened in 1987.

None of this will mean a thing to the layman coming into this movie fresh. As a newbie, perhaps a fan of Chucky or M3GAN (2022) wanting more animatronic thrills, expect the younger crowd around you to be excitedly whispering nonsense like the above. This is their horror Lord of the Rings (2001-03) or Star Wars, to which they’re devotees. But Five Nights at Freddy’s can be enjoyed by outsiders, and may become the gateway into a new fandom.

In less than a decade, FNAF’s risen to become a multi-media phenomenon consisting of nine video games, an alt-universe novel trilogy, 12 Goosebumps-esque anthology books, two in-universe informational books, and a series of comics. Need a quick catch-up before seeing the new film? Check YouTube for dozens of helpful videos like “Five Nights at Freddy’s Lore in Only 8:47:38.” And that’s not even the longest one out there!

Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson), traumatized by nightmares and jobless, takes a last chance to care for his younger sister by working as a security guard at the abandoned Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Sleeping through the night shifts seems easy, but Freddy and his animatronics do get a bit quirky at night…

The premise is simpler in the 2014 video game, but the film adaptation’s been stuck in development hell since 2015. Scott Cawthon, FNAF’s creator, vetoed a dozen screenplays, even rejecting one by Chris Columbus (Home Alone). Finally, Seth Cuddeback, Chris Lee Hill, Tyler MacIntyre, director Emma Tammi, and Cawthon himself agreed on how to tell the Five Nights at Freddy’s story right.

The games and this movie are fundamentally different. You can complete every major FNAF game and still not understand the story. Players must comb through cryptic easter eggs, secret minigames, and a healthy dose of guesswork to piece together the labyrinthine saga. Not to mention Cawthon’s deliberate zig-zagging to mislead YouTubers who claim to have figured everything out. This investigative engagement has fostered a passionate fanbase that can regale hours of backstory from memory. So, how can a Five Nights at Freddy‘s movie avoid overwhelming newcomers without disappointing the ardent aficionados?

Mike was never a traditional protagonist. He was an audience surrogate in the first game and an afterthought in Cawthon’s later work, overshadowed by the creator’s interest in cartoonish villains. But in the movie, Hutcherson elevates Mike to a complex and relatable character. Hutcherson appears in almost every scene, and the film’s front half is dedicated to fleshing out Mike’s financial and emotional desperation. At times, Mike does become a reactive character, but this serves his arc of taking responsibility for the life he’s let slip away. Hutcherson effectively conveys Mike’s emotional trauma, while also making him a sympathetic and relatable twenty-something in a quarter-life crisis.

Newcomer Abby (Piper Rubio) adds a welcome splash of warmth and heart to an otherwise bleak story. She shines as a ray of sunshine in a rundown pizzeria, bringing laughs and tugging on heartstrings in her big-screen debut. Elizabeth Lail and Matthew Lillard (Scream) also provide strong supporting performances, but one is left wanting more due to their limited screen time.

The real stars of Five Nights at Freddy’s are, of course, the Fazbear animatronics: Freddy, Chica, Foxy, and Bonnie. These characters are brought to life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, emphasizing practical effects over CGI. The mix of people in suits and actual animatronics creates an eerie Uncanny Valley effect, making the animatronics seem both lifeless and unsettlingly lifelike.

The performers do a great job of portraying the animatronics’ mechanical mannerisms, but the writing doesn’t give the robots any truly distinguishing personalities. Foxy has his signature jaunty hum, but Freddy’s iconic ‘Toreador March’ is noticeably absent. Chica’s accessory Cupcake gets more screen time than half of the animatronics, and Freddy himself, despite being in the title, is just one part of the gang.

While the character development is welcome, the sheer amount of time spent away from the pizzeria leaves the story feeling lacking. The worldbuilding is familiar to fans, who have dissected every detail of the games to determine who, where, and when, but Cawthon repeats his flaw of never explaining why anything happens. Halloween’s Michael Myers may not need a reason, but the characters in FNAF attempt to counter this with a nonchalant “I guess that happened” attitude. This will satisfy fans who are already familiar with the story, but newcomers will likely be dissatisfied with how arbitrary everything feels. This issue is compounded by a prevalent subplot that only serves to add to the kill count and is then abruptly abandoned.

Emma Tammi has horror cred with The Wind (2018) praised for her measured approach to underlying dread. Less positive critics have accused Tammi of making another tedious film with FNAF. The film’s runtime of two hours may well be excessive for some as it suffers from long sequences outside the pizzeria that lack any scares. In the games, the deadly animatronics can kill you on night one, but why would Mike ever come back in the movie? The once nail-biting five nights are now fast-forwarded through as he literally sleeps on the job. The film also includes supernatural shenanigans in the protagonist’s nightmares, which makes it feel like Tammi is pitching a Nightmare on Elm Street reboot.

The debate raging online is whether the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie is a good horror movie, a good FNAF movie, and even what kind of horror movie FNAF should be. The intense jump-scares that terrify players leave the actual gruesome fate of the protagonist to the imagination. Many have criticized the PG-13 (US) / 15 (UK) rating, not because they believe the violence should be onscreen, but because the games convey a relentless dread punctuated by visceral shocks. While the Blumhouse company logo may set expectations of a more intense horror experience, the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie is closer to Goosebumps (2015) than it is Insidious (2011).

Chuck E. Cheese is a kids’ place, and this movie knows it. Even the most scaredy-cat grown-up won’t find a scare here, despite the morose backstory of ritual child death. The idea of animatronics coming to life at night is inherently goofy, and even the big bad feels like a Scooby-Doo villain.

The film is clearly aimed at young teenagers, evidenced by later games and related content that have veered away from child murder to focus on colourful robotics. James Wan’s Malignant (2021) set the blueprint for frights and laughs with pitch-perfect absurdity. Young teens will find plenty of entertainment in the haunted house thrills offered here.

Five Nights at Freddy’s will succeed as the next big gateway horror in the vein of Gremlins (1984), Tremors (1990), and Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). It was no mistake to release it the same day it became available online, via Peacock, as parents will warn every single Halloween sleepover party not to watch this one too late… and then be awoken an hour later by all the shrieks.

USA | 2023 | 109 MINUTES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Emma Tammi.
writers: Scott Cawthorn, Seth Cuddeback & Emma Tammi (story by Scott Cawthorn, Chris Lee Hill & Tyler MacIntyre; based on the video games created by Scott Cawthorn).
starring: Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Lail, Piper Rubio, Mary Stuart Masterson & Matthew Lillard.