Bonnie, Freddy Fazbear and Chica in Five Nights at Freddy’s, directed by Emma Tammi. Photo: Patti Perret/Universal Pictures
If your ideal movie-going experience involves a film whose climax is so convoluted, so bogged down in inside-baseball franchise referencing, and so devoid of anything resembling emotional catharsis or even the vaguest of thrills that the filmmakers felt the need to add ADR lines like “what is happening!?” over the footage, then boy, oh boy does the creative team behind Five Nights at Freddy’s have great news for you.
An adaptation of the long-running multi-installment video game franchise, Blumhouse’s Five Nights at Freddy’s film manages to fall short on just about every level. While some stellar design work and one absolutely sensational scenery-chewing performance do their best to keep things afloat, nearly everything that made the games a viral sensation is lost in translation. Despite the granular specificity with which the characters and designs are so arduously replicated here, the lo-fi minimalist aesthetic and tone of the actual games themselves are thrown entirely out the window in favor of something much glossier, gaudier, and ultimately less affecting.
This isn’t a poor choice in and of itself – as the film ultimately feels much more aligned with fellow Blumhouse-produced killer-robot-viral-sensation M3GAN than it does with its source material – but Five Nights at Freddy’s fails to deliver on this front as well. The result is a film whose potential feels relentlessly squandered.
TOP 5 THINGS ABOUT “FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S“
5. Weak Spot: Dream Detective
Look, genuinely, I am all for horror films having gonzo subplots and storylines. If it works to enhance character or theme in even some marginal way, I say go ahead and give your protagonist a weird semi-psychic story arc. Regan’s mind-melding abilities in Exorcist II: The Heretic? Great stuff. Michael Myers and Jamie Lloyd’s inexplicable psychic link in Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers? All for it.
But giving Josh Hutcherson’s protagonist Mike a storyline in which his every motivation and the bulk of the film’s runtime are occupied by his ability to return to a traumatic childhood memory in a dream every night so that he can sleuth for more clues he might have missed before? On paper, it sounds like more than a few bridges too far, but honestly, even this could work if Five Nights at Freddy’s knew what to do with it. But it goes nowhere and adds so little to the film that it’s ultimately just obtuse.
4. The Newton Brothers’ Score
The Newton Brothers rule. Longtime composers of just about everything Mike Flanagan has ever done and much more, they have had more than their fair share of experience scoring horror projects. But traditionally, their scores have been more orchestral and symphonic in nature, so to hear them get to cut loose with what is a John Carpenter-indebted, 80s-influenced synth banger for Five Nights at Freddy’s is an absolute delight.
In fact, I would argue the film is at its best during its opening credits (high praise for the rest of the movie, I know). From the font to the exploration of the genuinely stellar production design of the Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza set to the blaring spotlight cast upon the Newton Brothers’ sickly blast of vintage synth joy, it strikes the exact right mood for the film.
3. Emma Tammi’s Direction
Five Nights at Freddy’s is a mess, but it isn’t without craft by any stretch of the imagination. Director Emma Tammi and cinematographer Lyn Moncrief make some fascinating and off-kilter visual choices that work unexpectedly well. Their implementation of highly specific and filmic close-ups of seemingly ancillary details (this writer was personally drawn to the repeated image of spilled soda soaking into the wooden picnic table) was fascinating and often quite effective. Similarly, while it certainly isn’t true for all of the film, there is a set piece early on in which Tammi is clearly having a joyous time unleashing Freddy and his fellow animatronics to grisly results.
Things do go thoroughly off the rails by the finale, but that feels less indicative of Tammi’s capabilities and more indicative of some overwrought creative clashes behind the scenes and extensive reshoots and retoolings.
2. Matthew Fucking Lillard
There’s precisely one performer in this movie who seems to be aware of the fact that they’re in a movie about killer animatronic Chuck E. Cheese monsters, and that performer is Matthew Lillard. From the moment he shows up onscreen, he is salivating all over the scenery, savoring every syllable that his character gets to deliver with such devilish glee that it’s impossible not to get a vicarious high from it. Even audiences who are unfamiliar with the source material will undoubtedly spot the film’s big twists coming from a few hundred miles away, given how heavily Lillard’s performance telegraphs it so early into the film. But the twist is ultimately a nothing reveal anyway, so if given the choice, I would choose batshit insane Matthew Lillard over preserving any kind of secrecy every single time.
1. Weak Spot: The Tone
Five Nights at Freddy’s is a poorly constructed adaptation with a rank script that fails to properly escalate tension or refrain from having some of the most painfully blunt and uninspired dialogue of the year. But the biggest issue that comes as a direct result of the script is the film’s tone, which is so all-over-the-place it’s practically nonexistent.
In trying to do both horror and comedy but failing wildly at each (and often failing to even begin to discern what reaction any given beat is even attempting to mine), Five Nights at Freddy’s becomes a monotonous slog. Even a moment like Hutcherson’s initial introduction to the animatronics, which should be the easiest slam dunk in the world, falls horribly flat because it is such a tonally rudderless sequence.
Is it scary? No. Is it funny? No. Is it confounding? Yes. And that’s true for a remarkable majority of the film.
Five Nights at Freddy’s feels like it could, would, and should have succeeded on a number of different levels. In the wake of last year’s uber-minimalist horror sensation Skinamarink, it isn’t hard to imagine a lo-fi adaptation more rooted in the mechanics of its source material working quite well on an experiential level. Even meeting this version on its own terms, it isn’t hard to look at the broad character strokes of something like M3GAN and see how simple this narrative of the robots at first seemingly friendly and uniting a broken family only to turn dire in the latter acts could be executed in a much more effective fashion.
But as it stands, the film proves unable to accomplish any of this, and makes one long for its ending well before the credits roll.