By Liv Barry
The long-awaited “Five Nights at Freddy’s” film finally hit theaters on Oct. 27.
Adapting the material for the silver screen proved to be a challenge. According to ScreenRant, the film was in “development hell” for the majority of the years following its initial announcement, cycling through production companies, scripts, and directors until an official cast and director were announced in late 2022.
Unfortunately, the struggle to adapt “Five Nights at Freddy’s” from an established franchise — including nine video games, four spin-offs, and 28 accompanying novels — into a film was apparent in the final cut.
The allure of developer Scott Cawthon’s games lies in their “lore,” or the endless spiral of background information that the games contain about the story, which, in the case of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” runs far deeper than its seemingly simple gameplay.
While Cawthon padded the first video game with lore for players to uncover by playing the game, the magic of piecing together the story bit by bit is not present in the film adaptation.
Instead, the film follows Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson), an out-of-work security guard tasked with taking care of his younger sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). To keep his custody of Abby, Mike takes a job as the night guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, an abandoned, Chucky E. Cheese-esque restaurant with animatronics that are said to “get a bit quirky at night.”
This set-up gives more depth to Mike, who is the protagonist of the first video game, but ultimately bogs down the scarier aspects of the film. Instead of honing in on the feeling of being trapped inside the abandoned Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza — which is the primary way tension is built in the games — the film spends an inordinate amount of time in Mike’s home.
As he struggles to take care of himself and Abby, Mike is plagued with nightmares about a camping trip he took in his childhood that led to the disappearance of his younger brother, Garrett (Lucas Grant). It is later revealed that these nightmares are self-inflicted, as Mike is trying to lucid dream in order to uncover more information about Garrett’s disappearance.
Each time he falls asleep, Mike is met with the same sequence of events from the day of his brother’s disappearance — Garrett flying a toy plane, his parents walking away, and his brother’s crying face as he is driven away in a mysterious car. Eventually, however, Mike also sees a group
of children who eerily resemble the animatronics inside of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza as they watch the car drive away with Garrett inside.
While the children’s presence should be unsettling, the sequence is employed so often that it makes the moment grating. The film assumes that the audience cannot make the connection between the children and the animatronics on their own, and beats them over the head with the repetitive moment until it reveals the fate of these children.
To make matters worse, these nightmares comprise the bulk of Mike’s time guarding the pizzeria. Instead of spending his time exploring the building and interacting with the animatronics, Mike is asleep for the majority of his shift.
Additionally, when Mike does interact with the animatronics, there is rarely any imminent danger. He is always safeguarded by his sister, who befriends the robots, or by Vanessa (Elizabeth Lali), a police officer whose suspicious knowledge about the establishment always saves Mike before he steps into harm’s way.
All of the movie’s scariest moments are dedicated to unnamed or minor characters.
The opening sequence follows a nameless security guard as he is killed at the hands of the animatronics. While the moment was a bit goofy, it set a precedent for tension and scares that the rest of the film did not live up to.
One of the best scenes follows Max (Kat Conner Sterling), Abby’s babysitter, as she, her boyfriend, and an accomplice attempt to rob the restaurant at the request of Jan (Mary Stuart Anderson), Mike and Abby’s aunt who is vying for custody. Max and her friends succeed in vandalizing the establishment, but find themselves unable to leave as they are mauled by the robots.
The tension built in this scene was incredible, establishing a sense of real danger around not just the animatronics, but also the physical space of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, as nowhere in the building is safe. Additionally, the physicality of the animatronics, which, according to The Hollywood Reporter, were created by the Jim Henson Company, was particularly unsettling in this scene; most of the “robots” were puppets operated by an actor inside of them, which gave them a dread-inducing way of moving.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not live up to this sequence. The tone of the film, which waffles from mildly creepy, to goofy, to Hallmark-grade corniness, ultimately falls flat when compared to the genuine horror of the video games.
Judging by the number of family-friendly YouTubers who make run-throughs or stream the game — two of which even made cameos in the film — the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” fanbase skews young. To not isolate adolescent fans, Cawthon tried to walk the line between appropriate and scary, but forgot that even his youngest fans still appreciate the suspense and fast-moving nature of the games.
Without snappy pacing or any real tension, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” fails to capture what made the franchise so popular in the first place.