Five Nights at Freddy’s review – horror game movie is an unscary Halloween trick
A competently made yet maddeningly dull attempt to bring the hit video game to the big screen makes for an instantly forgettable night at the movies
There are five nights to be survived at cursed old pizza spot Freddy Fazbear’s yet it feels like an awful lot more in this surprisingly flat attempt to turn a hit video game into a hit movie. At a flabby, sign-of-the-times 110 minutes, there’s far too much of so many things – dream sequences, exposition, first act buildup – and far too little of what one would naturally expect from something as surface-level silly as this – fun.
It’s partly because writer-director Emma Tammi and game creator Scott Cawthon, acting as co-writer here, seem frighteningly unsure of how seriously they’re supposed to take Five Nights at Freddy’s and so we’re left equally confused. It clangs from straight-faced speeches about childhood trauma to cartoonish kids’ movie-level goofiness, tonally awkward and strangely, maddeningly dull, unravelling a mystery that’s as predictable as it is uninteresting. A film about murderous animatronic animals should not have one checking their watch quite so much …
Five Nights at Freddy’s tells of a dilapidated Chuck E Cheese-esque pizza restaurant for kids, greasy slices soundtracked by a performing band of robotic mascots. Despite its closure years earlier, a security guard is still required to keep everyone out, a thankless position newly filled by troubled drifter Mike (Hunger Games alum Josh Hutcherson) with help from creepy career counselor Steve (Matthew Lillard). After the death of his parents, he’s tasked with caring for his younger sister despite interference from his meddling aunt (a snarling Mary Stuart Masterson, acting as if she’s a bad guy trying to send Beethoven to the pound). Mike remains stuck, forever haunted by the disappearance of his brother when they were kids, trying to find out what happened to him by replaying the day he went missing through his dreams. But sleeping on the job isn’t the wisest idea.
For certain, perhaps older newcomers, there’s something alluringly retro about the lurid B-movie set-up not just because of the 80s heyday of the setting but because of how equally throwback the idea is, recalling horrors of that era based on similarly ludicrous conceits, like Chopping Mall or Dolls or Death Spa. But a modernised take gets quickly deadened by genre problems of our time, focusing less on the nasty fun of watching possessed robot animals kill and more on the tedious inner torment of our one-note protagonist. Hemmed in by a family-friendly PG-13 rating, the death scenes are drab and artlessly censored but even with more violence, Tammi would still struggle to create the suspense we need and expect. Her film never once threatens to quicken one’s pulse (a sequence using a ball-pit is a frustrating dud), the lumberingly slow pace of her tinny villains proving to be a problem she’s never able to fix.
She does a mostly competent job as director otherwise, her film looking more polished than many other Halloween offerings this year (Amazon’s 80s-set Totally Killer looking entirely awful in comparison) but it’s not enough to paper over the many cracks that the script introduces, with a dumb, convoluted plot that, even with such an overextended runtime, never makes a shred of sense. There are far too many scenes of Hutcherson’s simple, sad-eyed lead gaining intel from an exposition-spouting cop played by You’s Elizabeth Lail, interactions between the pair feeling like text-on-screen filler you wish you could expedite with a click of a button. There’s just too much dialogue and not enough dying, a fatal misjudgment in just how invested we are in the film’s feeble mystery. The big reveal is a big inevitability and the big showdown is a big letdown, with some misjudged scenery-chewing and laughable stabs at emotion.
The low-stakes, late-night thrill we expect from the material never arrives, held back by a mixture of indecisive restraint and misplaced self-importance. Five Nights at Freddy’s is somehow a slog to get through and will be promptly forgotten by morning.
Lee, B. (n.d.). Five Nights at Freddy’s review – horror game movie is an unscary Halloween trick. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2023/oct/26/five-nights-at-freddys-review-halloween