You’re all alone in the middle of the night, inside a dilapidated third-rate Chuck E. Cheese. The paint is cracking. The games are busted. The rooms are empty except for the rotting animatronic mascots whose unconvincing “friendly” faces are permanently contorted in giant, toothy grins. When you look away from these rotting mechanical puppets you hear a noise. When you look back at them… they’ve moved.
The genius of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” the video game, is largely conceptual. It’s a cocktail of anti-nostalgia, wherein childhood iconography gets grossly corrupted by the ravages of time and retroactive context. Something terrible happened here. All we can do now is watch and wait for its ghosts to find us, and hope we can shut the door on them in time.
The terror of the video game series is sadly lost in the tedious mythology of the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” movie. All the primal fears are replaced with endless exposition and humdrum drama, to say nothing of the film’s disastrous shifts in tone. Fans eager to see their beloved animatronic monsters brought to life by the Jim Henson Workshop may walk away satisfied, if only in the knowledge that technically the job was done, but anyone shopping for a film that actually works should spend their night elsewhere.
Josh Hutcherson (“The Hunger Games”) stars as Mike, a security guard who will lose custody of his little sister, Abby (Piper Rubio), if he doesn’t find a new job right away. The only available gig in town, according to his creepy career counselor (Matthew Lillard, “Scream”), is at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a theme restaurant that closed down years ago whose owner can’t bear to bulldoze it. But has Mike been hired to keep people out or to keep the evil haunted mascots in?
That’s a decent set-up for a horror movie, one that successfully answers the tricky question of why our hero not only goes into an obviously haunted (pizza) house, but why they stay there and, in Mike’s case, why they keep coming back. But that wasn’t enough, apparently. Oh no, Mike also wills himself into lucid, recurring dreams of a traumatic childhood memory every night, in the hopes of solving the mystery of his little brother’s abduction. When he sleeps at Freddy’s the dreams change and he sees ghostly children who might, just might, be able help him out.
But wait, it gets clunkier: Mike’s aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson, “Daniel Isn’t Real”) is scheming to get custody of Abby, by criminal means if necessary. She’s hired a lawyer and will engage in expensive criminality because she wants Abby’s welfare checks, which are probably worth less than her overall investment in this elaborate con. Also, there’s a suspicious cop, played by Elizabeth Lail (“Ordinary Joe”), who suspiciously knows a lot about the mythology of Freddy Fazbear’s and has nothing better to do than hang out with Mike all night.
It’s amazing how “Five Nights at Freddy’s” makes a simple concept so convoluted, to the point that it takes a shockingly long time to get Mike into Freddy’s in the first place. It’s not just a title. This movie actually feels five nights long. Normally, when we call a film “padded” we mean it gets distracted from its story, but in this case it’s the story that gets in the way. What’s worse is the story only highlights how little sense it makes on any level.
Then there are the film’s bizarre shifts in tone, which suggest that the filmmakers wanted to make these animatronic monsters scarier but were butting heads against a mandate to make them fun and marketable. We see these creatures graphically bite somebody in half — which the MPA apparently thinks is PG-13 material as long as it’s in silhouette — but then a few scenes later kids are building little forts with them like they’re friendly imaginary friends.
You’d think the contrast would generate suspense, but you’d be wrong. It plays more like an early scene of brutal violence was added to the script at the last minute because someone noticed the first half of the movie was light on scares. But it ruins the second half of the movie in the process.
One of the big problems with video game adaptations is that video games, though incredibly diverse and fascinating as an art form, are an interactive medium. Movies aren’t necessarily passive, but video games are experiential. They generally provide the audience with an opportunity to truly live in the moment. The appeal of “Five Nights at Freddy’s” was spending five nights alone at Freddy’s trying to survive a nightmarish experience.
But in this film the experience of surviving five nights at Freddy’s takes a back seat to explaining the mythology of it all. It’s more like an adaptation of the game’s Wikipedia page than an adaptation of an actual game, and it’s a textbook example of how video game adaptation often fails to translate the true appeal of the material. By focusing on what happens the filmmakers lose sight of how it feels to be there when it does.
As directed by co-writer Emma Tammi (“The Wind”), “Five Nights at Freddy’s” puts a lot of stuff from the games up on the screen in the hopes that fans will live out that Leonardo DiCaprio meme from “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” where he recognizes something and points at a TV.
It’s as though the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” movie only exists to prove that “Five Nights as Freddy’s” was finally turned into a film. But it’s hard to celebrate the fact that we finally got the movie they promised us when it wasn’t worth the wait. When “The Banana Splits Movie” got there first, and did it slightly better, you’re in trouble.
“Five Nights at Freddy’s” is in theaters and Peacock on Friday, October 27.