- Emma Tammi
- Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Lail, Piper Rubio, Kat Conner Sterling, Mary Stuart Masterson, Matthew Lillard
- 109 min.
- Release Date
Five Nights at Freddy’s reminds us that we should worry less about artificial intelligence working its way into every facet of our lives, despite former Google engineers warning us that AI sentience is inevitable. What we should be worried about is robots. And not just any robots, such as the killing machines in The Terminator (1984) or the malfunctioning security bots in Chopping Mall (1986). Thanks to this movie, we now have to worry about robots possessed by ghost children. Then again, though deadly robots and spooky kids would each be frightening enough alone without them teaming up, somehow, when they’re together here, they’re not that scary or much fun. The Blumhouse feature, based on the popular video game franchise, initially developed in 2014 by Scott Cawthon, delivers a movie that feels muted and dull next to this year’s similarly themed M3GAN. For a movie about killer animatronics from a fictional family restaurant called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, modeled after Billy Bob’s Wonderland and Chuck E. Cheese, it’s surprising that scares and fun seem to be missing.
Instead, the screenwriters, including Cawthon, Seth Cuddeback, and director Emma Tammi, conceive a dour scenario about a lowly, traumatized security guard named Mike (Josh Hutcherson), who reluctantly takes an overnight job guarding the dilapidated remains of a former pizza joint. When Mike was 12 years old, he lost his younger brother to a kidnapper. Now, he floats from one job to another, barely maintaining his guardianship over his young sister, Abby (Piper Rubio), who has a penchant for drawing and imaginary friends. At the same time, Mike relies on sleeping pills so he can search his unconscious memories for clues about who took his younger brother—and he has plenty of time to sleep at his security guard gig (having worked as a security guard for a summer in my 20s, I can attest to the accuracy of sleeping on that particular job). But after circumstances require Mike to bring Abby to work with him, he discovers the creepy animatronic characters are alive when they begin to play with his little sister.
Meanwhile, Mike’s malicious aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) wants custody of Abby, so she hires a couple of lowlifes to break into Freddy Fazbear’s and wreck the place, hoping it will lead to Mike’s termination and proof for the courts that he’s irresponsible and shouldn’t be Abby’s guardian. It doesn’t end well for Aunt Jane’s goons, shown in a short sequence representing the movie’s foremost display of what these killer robots are capable of. Five Nights at Freddy’s tests its PG-13 rating with the gore in this sequence, but similar to the prologue about Mike’s doomed predecessor, the subplot feels ungainly inserted into the mix if only to ensure there’s a body count. In any case, Jane’s plan fails, partly because Mike has a suspicious guardian angel in a local cop, Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), who seems to do nothing besides hang around the ruined restaurant where Mike works. Although he half-heartedly attempts to figure out why she knows everything about Freddy Fazbear’s, she remains a dubious and clumsily written character.
Much of Five Nights at Freddy’s is entrenched in Mike’s search for his kidnapped brother, probing his dreams and seeking out the help of ghost children for clues. Hutcherson does a fine job capturing Mike’s exhausted and wounded nature, but he’s such an energetic actor that his charm seems wasted here. Directed by Tammi, who made The Wind (2018) and a particularly good entry in Hulu’s Into the Dark series with “Blood Moon” (2021), the movie’s brooding tone is in keeping with the game’s aesthetic, which involves a lot of unnerving movement in the dark and an entrenched backstory. What Tammi doesn’t carry over is the game’s jump-scare-machine quality. Playing the game, you must watch various security cameras and dark corners, but look away for too long, and a killer robot will pop out of nowhere to give you a mild heart attack. There’s nothing so stirring in the movie version, which gradually turns the killbots into victims of a child murderer whose seen-it-coming identity will surprise no one.
The filmmakers attempt to have fun with the throwback quality of the setting, including some 1980s hits on the soundtrack, a VHS training video, and an 8-bit title sequence. But nostalgia is hardly enough to maintain our interest for 109 minutes. The production is capably assembled, with the dark restaurant serving as an evocative space of unreliable lights and vintage arcade games, shot with clarity by d.p. Lyn Moncrief. The few heightened scenes unfold with clarity and cohesion. But there’s nothing to grab the audience in Five Nights at Freddy’s. Considering this is Blumhouse’s big Halloween season release, it feels like a letdown. However, given the company’s business model of low budgets and big promotion, it’s sure to earn back its $20 million budget on opening weekend (despite arriving on Peacock the same day). Doubtlessly, it will be considered a success, but that could only be on financial terms. The packed house in my screening was mostly quiet during this lifeless experience, devoid of the laughs and screams you might expect from such material. Maybe they took a cue from Mike and chose to sleep through it instead.