After years of development hell, the beloved Five Nights at Freddy’s video game franchise finally gets the big-screen treatment via Blumhouse. The anticipation for this movie adaptation, in particular, has been unlike any other, with producer Jason Blum claiming that the film has already made back more than its $25 million production budget before its release from its streaming and theatrical distribution rights alone. This isn’t so shocking given how insanely popular FNaF is. Regardless of whether you’ve played the games or not, it’s incredibly hard not to at least recognize Freddy Fazbear and his fellow animatronics given the IP’s intense branding and rabid fandom. Any moderate amount of time spent on the internet will have you exposed to viral FNaF memes, songs, cosplays, and more. Heck, anyone who’s ever been on YouTube has probably come across Markiplier or MatPat’s FNaF videos. The list goes on.
Backed by Blumhouse, perhaps the most popular studio name in modern horror, with the heavy involvement of FNaF creator Scott Cawthon as producer and co-writer, all signs point to Five Nights at Freddy’s (2023) being a sure-fire hit. Although this can already be said for its profits, it is sadly not the same case in terms of its quality. Before you get the tomatoes out to throw at a critic who might just not “get” FNaF like you do, hear me out! For those fans who’ve waited a long time to see Freddy Fazbear fully realized on the big screen, wouldn’t it be somewhat disappointing to finally get a FNaF movie and have it be nowhere near as scary (or even entertaining) as the games? Adjust your expectations because Blumhouse’s Five Nights at Freddy’s prioritizes appealing to general audiences of all ages over capturing the franchise’s true scare factor.
Given the rather simple premise of “surviving the night” and first-person gaming style, adapting the original FNaF games into a movie was always going to be a challenge. Yes, the games do introduce complex lore in the overarching story throughout its many sequels, but this isn’t enough when it comes to forming fully dimensional human protagonists to follow for an entire feature-length film. Director Emma Tammi (The Wind) and Scott Cawthon get creative with this aspect in their script, co-written by Seth Cuddeback with a story by Cawthon, Chris Lee Hill, and Tyler MacIntyre. We follow the protagonist from the first game Mike Schmidt, portrayed by Josh Hutcherson of Hunger Games fame. Though, unlike his game counterpart, Mike in the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie is a young adult looking to make ends meet while keeping custody of his younger sister Abby, played by newcomer Piper Rubio.
There’s more to Mike’s character than some FNaF fans might be expecting. Mike is troubled by recurring nightmares of his missing younger brother Garrett (Lucas Grant). Each night in his dreams, he forces himself to relive the moment when Garrett was mysteriously kidnapped during a family picnic in the park, hoping to uncover clues from that foggy memory that will help him learn more about his brother’s disappearance. The loss of one sibling keeps Mike close to his sister Abby, who’s a bit socially awkward and different from most kids. His custody battle with their manipulative Aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) leads him to his social worker Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard) in search of a new job. Steve can only offer the sketchy night-time security guard position at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a once-successful but now abandoned family entertainment center. With no other option, Mike takes the job for his sister.
After briefly teasing them at the very beginning, we now get a proper introduction to the film’s four animatronic mascots – Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie, Chica, and Foxy. Mike at first doesn’t realize that killer animatronics come to life after midnight at the pizzeria, as he spends his hours on the job asleep. It’s not until he starts getting mysterious messages in his recurring nightmares that he begins to piece together Freddy Fazbear’s dark past, which includes more missing children and one William Afton. With the help of local police offer Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), who may be hiding her own secrets, and his little sister Abby who also forms a strange connection to the pizzeria, Mike must uncover the truth about the killer animatronics to survive and break the cycle of violence at Freddy Fazbear’s.
By the time we finish the first act and finally see Mike in the security office at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, the film is in dire need of some momentum. The moment fans have been waiting years for has arrived – we’re in the office with Mike past midnight and the security cameras have Freddy and the gang creepily on display. This is where the fun should begin! Unfortunately, there’s little horror to be found from this point on. The second act of Blumhouse’s Five Nights at Freddy’s is too bloated for its own good, more busy juggling multiple characters around and delivering exposition rather than delivering scares. The movie doesn’t pick up its pace and dive back into full horror until the very end after a surprise twist. However, when the runtime clocks in at an hour and fifty minutes, it’s too little too late.
Josh Hutcherson gives an admirable performance as Mike Schmidt, and his sibling dynamic with the charming Piper Rubio is a much-welcomed addition to this adaptation. You can see what director Emma Tammi was going for with how much time we spend with Mike as he opens up about his grief and survivor’s guilt with the kidnapping of his brother. However, the audience is never allowed to feel the proper emotions due to the film’s mixed tone. Scenes of Mike diving into his childhood trauma come off as uneven and out of place when compared to scenes of Chica, an anthropomorphic chicken animatronic, killing people with her cupcake, who’s another sentient animatronic in itself. This is all inherently silly, sure! Yet, that’s far from the real problem. It’s just that this movie can’t decide how serious or unserious it wants to be at times.
When Blumhouse’s Five Nights at Freddy’s tries to adopt a more serious tone to comment on grief and trauma, it feels too heavy and out of left field. When it’s time to let loose and watch some killer animatronics chase people around, you feel like the movie could be taking itself less seriously and have way more fun with the concept. The end result you get is a mixed bag that can’t commit to anything. And when the film’s indecisiveness is combined with its equally mixed pacing, it frankly turns into a bore. Fans are going to be quick to compare this to 2021’s Willy’s Wonderland starring Nicolas Cage. Directed by Kevin Lewis, Willy’s Wonderland was actually inspired by FNaF and follows a similar premise of someone being hired to maintain an abandoned family entertainment business, only to find out that its animatronics come alive and kill at night.
Whereas Willy’s Wonderland commits to being an overtly campy B-movie from start to finish (which might not be to everyone’s liking), Blumhouse’s Five Nights at Freddy’s tries to walk the fine line between campiness and taking itself seriously in hopes of not alienating general audiences. It’s hard to say which of the two films is “better” given how they’re surprisingly more different than you would expect, but at least Willy’s Wonderland is confident in what it’s doing. Now, what FNaF does have going in its favor is the animatronics, courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Freddy, Bonnie, Chica, and Foxy all look fantastic and boast a tangible screen presence. It’s hard not to fall in love with them, seeing their fuzzy bodies creep and chase people around is often entertaining enough. Plus, Freddy and the band’s cover of “Talking In Your Sleep” by The Romantics is appropriately hilarious.
While the animatronics always look great on screen, they never feel like a real threat. The few instances of horror present are also sanitized by the PG-13 rating. Not that a FNaF film adaptation needs to be super violent, yet you can clearly tell when it’s holding back in order to appeal to all audiences. Honestly, seeing as the movie showcases the animatronics more as cute and fuzzy with fewer instances of them being truly horrifying, this might just prove to be a satisfying watch for younger viewers. This isn’t meant as an insult, as kids could always use a nice gateway into horror. They’ll probably be more amused by the handful of jumpscares too. Is this the version of a Five Nights at Freddy’s film fans were longing for? One that’s missing all the anxiety-inducing terror and paranoia of the beloved video game series it’s based on? Probably not.
Fun easter eggs and YouTuber cameos might get it by this time, but much more is needed if Blumhouse wants this to be their next hit franchise.