When my friend and I burst out laughing at an unintentionally funny jumpscare, I knew that the Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNAF) movie wasn’t going to succeed as a horror movie. Instead, it exists in the weird space where it doesn’t achieve real horror but rather uses subdued scare tactics to achieve a PG-13 rating (and ultimately, get a larger audience for the box office).
The film is based on the FNAF video games, the first of which was released in 2014 and achieved internet sensation after several notable YouTubers played through it. In the game, the player is a night guard at an abandoned Chuck E. Cheese-like pizzeria, where every night, the haunted animatronics attempt to murder the player. Its success spawned several sequels, spinoffs and novels.
In the movie, the main character, Mike Schmidt, is the newly hired security guard for the defunct Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza Place, a family entertainment center successful in the 1980s that closed after the disappearance of five children on its premises. Mike is played by Josh Hutcherson, best known for his role as Peeta in The Hunger Games. Throughout the film, Mike is troubled by the unsolved kidnapping of his younger brother from when they were kids.
The original FNAF game was frightening, because it put the player directly in charge of surviving against terrifying, murderous animatronics. That close, personal fear is always going to be difficult to translate to the silver screen.
In general, video game to film adaptations tend to be lacking in execution because of how much content is cut from the original. Lore is often uncovered through game-specific components, such as reading newspaper articles detailing the history of the game’s setting. A film cannot accomplish this type of interactive world-building, causing lore to often be left out entirely. Because video games often use specific game mechanics to drive their stories, film adaptations have a tendency to be significantly more lackluster.
Knowing this, I intentionally set my expectations pretty low. As a casual fan of the first game from 2014, I would have been content with a well-acted, well-produced adaptation that respected the source material.
In the beginning, we see Mike get fired from his job as a mall security guard after beating up the father of a kid who he incorrectly assumed was being abducted. This sets up the heart of the film: Mike’s inability to grapple with his trauma and his obsession with trying to find his brother’s kidnapper.
Another theme in the film is the importance of cherishing the remaining family you have, regardless of the circumstances. In the present day, Mike’s only remaining intermediate family member is his little sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). To provide for her, he takes up the job as night guard for Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza Place.
Hutcherson delivers enough of a moving performance as the lead that you sympathize with Mike’s shortcomings and his drive to solve his brother’s case. The script, unfortunately, doesn’t fully flesh out his character or any of the other characters in the entire film.
Abby’s entire role in the film is to be a communicator with the five ghost children haunting the animatronics. Even though there are moments when the deeper message about family comes through, the film doesn’t truly do it justice, instead wasting its runtime on making jokes with the animatronics and on a pointless side plot about Abby’s custody.
However, the film is successful in being a satisfying representation of a beloved game for its fans. Though I had some qualms about the way pieces from different games in the FNAF series were shoved together into a singular narrative, the film’s final story was cohesive enough that it wasn’t too much of a nuisance. The various references and easter eggs were also a nice nod for some of the more dedicated viewers.
For the most part, the production quality of the film is excellent. The set design, particularly that of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza Place, is perfectly eerie and is also realistic to what an abandoned kid’s entertainment pizzeria from the 80s would be like. Run-down arcade machines and aged table booths and chairs litter the set, and the unsettling stage in the middle of the pizzeria, where the animatronics are first seen, is the centerpiece of the set.
The lighting and cinematography were highlights of the film’s production. There’s enough darkness in the film to create an unnerving viewing experience when needed, but the filmmakers also smartly made use of the pizzeria’s fluorescent lighting to illuminate the set and animatronics in an uncanny way.
While direct gore is avoided, the camera pans toward any injured humans enough to show how violent the animal-shaped robots get. The repeated positioning of the background against the foreground shots to display the animatronics moving with their own free will, all while other characters are doing their own thing, is a classic horror trope. It’s effective at hinting at a background threat that will be making a direct appearance in the future.
Unfortunately, the part of the production which I found most lacking was its main subject, the animatronics. Though their movements were sufficiently creepy, and they looked realistic, they didn’t evoke any sense of real fear, which contributed to the reason why this film isn’t exactly scary.
Freddy Fazbear, the lead robotic bear singer of the animatronic band, is truly terrifying in his video game model. But in the film, he looked and acted so cute at times that I wasn’t sure if it was the same character. I remember seeing his eyebrows furrow at one point and thinking how silly it looked. You could blame this on poor visual design choices (such as having their faces be fully visible and not as grimy as in the game), but him and the other animatronics simply acted too goofy throughout the film for this to simply be a design issue. There are moments in the film where the animatronics are used for comedic effect, a decision that takes away any real fear they were meant to evoke.
Despite my grievances, I still give the film a fairly positive rating of three stars out of five, but that rating mostly comes from my feelings of nostalgia. Long-time fans waiting on this film for years will most likely be happy with what’s on screen, and casual viewers will enjoy the film, as seen by its high audience score of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Regardless of poor reviews from critics, the film is a major box office success, with a current worldwide box office of $252 million from its $20 million budget. Its ambiguous ending leaves room for sequels if studios want to make even more money. If I do see this franchise continued, I hope the next installments have more to offer than a predictable plot and some nostalgia.