Following the release of the first game in 2014, Five Nights at Freddy’s has become a global phenomenon with a universe made of nine games, three novels, and many other projects that give it an incredibly dense lore. So, a film adaptation was always going to be tricky – failing to cover much narrative ground could rub longtime fans the wrong way, while not making it accessible to newcomers could be detrimental to its success. The result falls somewhere in the middle, and as a result, is something of a mixed bag.
The initial response resulting from the film’s release was that it wasn’t scary or violent enough, leading to many genre pundits and filmmakers publicly celebrating its success as an example of “gateway horror”, ie. spooky films that can introduce younger viewers to the genre. On this level, Five Nights at Freddy’s is certainly successful with its mild level of scariness – but the film is surprisingly slow, which might make those younger viewers restless as they wait for Freddy and his animatronic buddies to appear.
The film follows Mike (Josh Hutcherson), the new night guard at an old run-down pizzeria that closed during the 1980s following a run of mysterious child disappearances. Told to simply make sure nobody comes in, it initially appears to be a simple job – until the venue’s group of friendly-looking animatronic animals show a more sinister side. When Mike brings his young sister to work, she strikes up a friendship with the animatronics that could spell disaster.
While fans of the long-running franchise will surely be delighted with the onslaught of Easter eggs and references throughout the film, those unfamiliar with its densely-loaded lore and characters may shrug at what is unfortunately quite a dull and muddled film. Unlike many of the film’s more ignorant detractors, I can understand the lack of any major scares – the first game, from which the film takes its main cues, is only rated 12 after all – but there is certainly valid criticism in the film’s predictability. The film’s climactic reveal isn’t even remotely surprising, and large chunks of the film are uninvolving and monotonous. While it certainly captures the game’s visuals and design, there is a lack of heart here, and the result feels rather cookie-cutter.
Special mention should go to the film’s visuals – Lyn Moncrief’s cinematography is wonderful, and the animatronics from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop are superbly faithful to the games and chilling in their quiet, menacing presence. The Newton Brothers’ score is also killer. Finally, following his appearance in Twin Peaks: The Return, Matthew Lillard continues his renaissance with a memorable supporting turn as Mike’s career counselor. But on the whole the film feels rather soulless and forgettable.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is slick, for sure – on a technical level, it’s pretty faultless. It looks and sounds great. It’s just a shame that the substance itself is lacking. The film feels a little aimless with regard to its target audience; by design, it’s not particularly scary, but it’s also not necessarily all that inviting to younger audiences due to its slow pace and uninvolving delivery. Even at a relatively short 100 minutes, it feels too long.
As game-to-screen adaptations go, you could do a lot worse. Five Nights at Freddy’s will surely be a fun watch for fans of the series who can tell their Freddy Fazbears from their Chicas, but newcomers may find a real-life night shift at an empty restaurant more stimulating.