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Five Nights At Freddy's review: Game adaptation is light on fright

Josh Hutcherson broods, Matthew Lillard mugs, and the animatronic villains are unsatisfying

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Photo: Universal Pictures

Five Nights At Freddy’s, a cinematic adaptation of Scott Cawthon’s uber-marketable video game franchise, has been in the works for so long that two rip-offs beat it to the big screen. There was The Banana Splits Movie, an oddly inappropriate Hanna-Barbera horror reboot; and Willy’s Wonderland, starring a non-verbal Nicolas Cage grunting and screaming. Five Nights At Freddy’s is better than at least one of those.

The core premise of the games is so basic and primal that it’s brilliant: evil Chuck E. Cheese. The beloved ’80s pizza place, loaded with video games and an animatronic house band, always felt just a touch creepy; the Five Nights games amped that factor up so much that most remaining Chuck E. Cheese locations removed their animatronics completely. The in-game explanation for the menace factor is morbidly hilarious in the initial installment: the animatronics are freed to walk around at night so their gears don’t seize up. However, if their AI detects humans, knowing they ought not be there after hours, it misidentifies them as robot endoskeletons, and they promptly get stuffed into spare suits, which kills them.


Later games layered on further mythology, and the explanation turned out to be much simpler: the places are haunted. That’s what the movie goes with. But nine years after the original game, it also comes with a built-in dilemma. Freddy Fazbear and his band of buddies have gone from terrifying antagonists to franchise mascots, plushes, action figures, and playable characters. As such, the movie seems undecided on whether to depict them as villains or heroes, ultimately splitting the difference in a way that isn’t wholly satisfying.


Josh Hutcherson plays Mike, the hapless security guard who takes a night job at the defunct Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, where the haunted robots roam. Rather than monitoring them on video, Paranormal Activity-style, he mostly uses his shift to take naps, during which he remains surprisingly unharmed, but he’s still haunted by the memory of his little brother’s abduction when they were kids. Mr. Fazbear, it turns out, isn’t named Freddy for nothing—he has some of the other horror film Freddy’s dream manipulation powers as well. (Both Freddys also sport stylish hats.)

Mike may be one of the least sympathetic horror movie heroes in recent memory, as his one-track-minded trauma makes him prone to violence against anyone whom he even suspects—often wrongly—might harm a kid. He’s a pretty impatient father figure to his equally traumatized younger sister Abby (Piper Rubio), too, though he beats the potential alternative of her money-grubbing aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson). The last thing he wants is a night job at a permanently closed theme restaurant, but it’s the only place that’ll hire him.

Five Nights At Freddy’s | Official Trailer

Director Emma Tammi (The Wind) takes her time building to the reveal of the animatronic characters, with shadows, posters, and kids’ drawings hinting at their look before the story quite literally raises the curtain on them. Her efforts are appreciated even if the conclusion is foregone, since these characters are ubiquitous in pop culture, and look exactly like they do in the game. It’s a level of fealty in translation that makes Marvel movie costumes look like Bat-nipples by comparison. The most notable alteration is the way their round eyes now narrow and widen like Family Guy characters, to show them scheming.


Freddy and Company’s first rampage, against a crew of mostly random thieves, is everything fans would hope, but they hardly ever endanger Mike and Abby, going so far as to actively play with the little girl in a friendly fashion. That all makes for such a shift that when the story tries to pivot them back to menacing, it doesn’t quite work. Especially since Mike makes such a selfish choice late in the story that he risks losing all traces of sympathy, and practically deserves to get stuffed into a buzzsaw-filled suit.

With Hutcherson playing dour and violent, and the animatronics mostly mute— they lip-sync, repeatedly, to The Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep”—Matthew Lillard adds some welcome levity as the staffer who hires Mike. He clearly enjoys the idea of Shaggy reversing roles to become a purveyor of a haunted establishment, and comes across as the only actor in on the joke.


In tone, this all plays out a lot like Killer Klowns From Outer Space, albeit with much higher box office expectations. Yes, there are kills, but they’re often as comical as they are scary, and deliberately so. It’s a fun gateway horror movie for kids—and the easily scared who want to test their limits lightly.