I was never a Chuck E. Cheese kid. Gross pizza. Stale soda. Creepy as hell animatronics. No thank you. That’s a sentiment that Scott Cawthon must have shared when he created the horror video game sensation, Five Nights at Freddy’s. Long in development, Blumhouse finally releases the movie adaptation fans have been waiting for this weekend from director Emma Tammi (The Wind). But—and as much as I hate to say this—like waiting for an hour to ride a rollercoaster, the wait isn’t quite worth the experience.
Written by Cawthon, Tammi and Seth Cuddeback, Five Nights at Freddy’s introduces us to Mike (Josh Hutcherson). There when his little brother was kidnapped as a child, Mike has held himself responsible ever since and has spent years trying to figure out who took his baby bro. Parents deceased and having recently been fired, he’s forced to take a job at a once popular but now abandoned family fun center dubbed Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza so that he can support his little sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). Overnight security guard seems like an easy gig at first…until he discovers that the animatronic robots in the place are more alive than they look, and they aren’t exactly family friendly.
I’m going to preface this by mentioning that I’ve never played the Five Nights at Freddy’s games. I know, I know. So, take this review with a heaping helping of salty Fazbear pizza. That being said, while I think fans will be thrilled to see these characters brought to life in beautifully crafted animatronics made by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the script is messier than a Chuck E. Cheese on a Friday night.
Without getting too into the weeds, the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise is comprised of nine games, spin-offs and even a novel trilogy, meaning there’s a ton of lore, a lot of which gets pretty wild. I couldn’t tell you how much of that is packed into the just under two-hours runtime of this movie, but I can tell you that this script is a lot. Scratch your head and melt your brain a lot.
There’s a common belief that simpler is better when it comes to horror, a rule of thumb which Five Nights at Freddy’s slices off and tosses out the window. Possessed animatronics slaughtering anyone who disturbs their decrepit fun center domain is plenty. Though the film doesn’t seem to think so. What could be a relatively simple, eerie stalk and slash with animatronics instead devolves into a convoluted tale with various nuts and bolts that don’t all fit neatly together. A good chunk of the script devotes itself to Mike’s dream theory practice, in which he has learned to have the same dream of his brother’s kidnapping every night in the hopes that he will uncover who took him. Oh, and there’s a subplot about Mike’s aunt trying to take custody of Abby. Oh, and a few other things I won’t mention because spoilers. Also, ghost children.
By subjecting the audience to extraneous plot points that have little bearing on the overall story, Five Nights at Freddy’s distracts itself from the prime reason most audiences came to watch…the scares. Tammi is an excellent director who understands atmospherics and how to craft dread-induced horror—seriously, watch The Wind—and for the first half of the film, those talents are on display. Stylish framing, an eerie set drenched in neon and The Newton Brothers’ electric score all work to illicit a good deal of tension drilling under the skin. PG-13 and not all that bloody, the kills aren’t too memorable, but Tammi finds clever ways to push the boundaries of what can be shown (especially in one instance that will have audiences cheering). Once we hit the midway point though, something occurs that takes all of the creepy air out of the room, like crashing full speed into a wall. From there, Five Nights at Freddy’s short-circuits, and it’s easy to get lost in the plot as we wonder why these characters don’t seem as concerned as they should about killer animatronics? When the cast isn’t terrified, neither are we.
Speaking of, the animatronics are absolutely stunning. They are so well-crafted, so delightfully uncanny, that it’s a disappointment the chaotic script doesn’t give them more opportunity at mayhem. Any fan of old-school practical effects will soak in the screen with joy-filled eyes as they look upon these mechanical monsters. Tammi is clearly a fan of in-camera effects, putting the animatronics center-stage rather than keeping them in the shadows for the audience to admire. In a time where so many monsters in film are created digitally, I’m thrilled that's not the case here. An award-worthy quality of work was put into Fazbear and friends. I have no doubt they’ll put a big, dumb grin on the faces of fans while tickling your fear bone.
As for the rest of the film, well, glorious animatronics aren’t enough to save an unfocused script. Stylish direction, some good laughs, and a brief but memorable performance from Matthew Lillard do the heavy-lifting to make Five Nights at Freddy’s a fun though less than satisfying experience lacking in thrills and chills. Less bloody than The Banana Splits Movie and more entertaining than Willy’s Wonderland, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a perfectly fine watch in the family fun center meets killer animatronics sub-genre. I’ll take Freddy’s over another visit to Chuck E. Cheese any day.
Five Night's at Freddy's arrives in theaters and on Peacock October 27th.