Full disclosure: I’ve never played any of the entries in the Five Nights at Freddy’s video game series, despite being an avid gamer with a particular fondness for horror titles (I’m taking a break from Alan Wake II in order to write this). But I’ll admit to having some familiarity with the general premise of FNAF, as well as vivid memories of Showbiz Pizza, the pre-Chuck E. Cheese family restaurants from which the games seem to have drawn inspiration. I grew up in the 80s, and driving for an hour to see an animatronic bear belt out a rendition of Huey Lewis’ “Back in Time” was a formative experience, but in hindsight the clunky, dead-eyed creatures on the stage were inherently creepy enough to provide ample fodder for scares, something creator Scott Cawthon channeled into a runaway success.
Joining forces with super producer Jason Blum to shepherd the crew onto the big screen, Cawthon (along with numerous other writers, including director Emma Tammi) expands the story beyond the walls of the decrepit Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Mike (Josh Hutcherson) is a recently fired mall security guard looking for a new gig in order to continue providing for his younger sister Abby (Piper Rubio), lest he be forced to hand over custody to his scheming aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson), whose motives are not to provide the girl with a loving and stable environment, but to cash in on the monthly welfare checks. Being a night watchman at a rundown pizza shack isn’t the most glamorous gig in the world, but a paycheck is still a paycheck, so Mike begrudgingly accepts, wondering (as one might) why a restaurant that’s been out of business for more than a decade still needs security in the first place.
That question, and countless others, will be answered with some of the most bland and uninspired exposition of all time, delivered by a local cop (Elizabeth Lail) whose knowledge of the restaurant’s past is practically encyclopedic. There’s also a subplot involving Mike’s guilt over the kidnapping of his younger brother when they were both children; every night, he experiences the same dream, hoping to notice a new detail that might lead him to find the culprit all these years later. By the time the crumbling animatronics that once served as the shop’s centerpiece attraction begin shambling around and wreaking havoc, you’ll likely be bored to tears, and fans who expect the same level of bloodshed as depicted in the game series will be disappointed in the PG-13 levels of violence.
Had the film version of Five Nights at Freddy’s endeavored to replicate the same thrills and chills that fostered such a feverish fanbase, it might well have succeeded; indeed, the opening scene and Mike’s first night on the job boast some solid scares, and the animatronics, brought to life by the Jim Henson Company, are faithful recreations of their video game counterparts. But the focus on family drama and exploring the restaurant’s absurdly convoluted (and just plain absurd) mythology prove to be a detriment, not to mention the wild shifts in tone that permeate the second half. The film seems rather unsure of its identity, half-heartedly attempting to be scary and funny, and ultimately succeeding at neither.