Opening weekend review–Five Nights at Freddy’s arrives for Halloween

Review by C.J. Bunce

If you haven’t played the video games, or read the manga or children’s books, you’ve probably run across some of the thousands of fans young and old cosplaying characters from Five Nights at Freddy’s.  After years in development, Blumhouse (who brought us wins with M3GAN, The Black Phone, and the Halloween and Happy Death Day films) has delivered the Showbiz Pizza and Chuck E. Cheese-inspired story to its first major live-action format, opening this weekend in theaters and streaming on Peacock.  The studio is being clear upfront the movie is not aimed at its younger fans, leaning into the story’s “blood-chilling” and “terrifying horror.”  But you know what?  It’s not really scary, especially compared to previous Blumhouse movies, and the lack of bloody gore and profanity will probably make this watchable for most teens and even some pre-teens.

The film follows a troubled security guard named Mike (The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson) as he begins working the night shift as a security guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza.  At the same time that Mike learns there is more to the animatrons than meets the eye, a dark mystery from his own past begins to unravel.  It’s that real world darkness that makes this a good follow-up to the 2021 Blumhouse thriller The Black Phone.

Despite the show’s headliner mechanical animals being created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the movie itself seems spectacularly inexpensive.  You have the key creatures and a set for a pizza shop, a small house, an unemployment office, and that’s pretty much it.  So it all hinges on the story and actors.  The movie co-stars young Piper Rubio as Mike’s sister Abby.  Although we never learn anything about her backstory, we do know Mike once had a brother who was kidnapped.  Mike thinks he may have seen the abduction, and takes extreme measures to try to remember what happened in the hopes of finding the perpetrator.  Working against Mike is his aunt, played by Mary Stuart Masterson (Fried Green Tomatoes, Benny & Joon, Some Kind of Wonderful).  She’s trying to take Abby away despite showing no love for her.  The character doesn’t really make sense, and Masterson is probably the wrong person for this role.  But the point is that Mike and Abby are surrounded by opposing forces.

From the trailers audiences already know the backstory of the 1980s pizza funhouse is somehow tied to four missing children back around 1987.  But although it’s not made clear on screen, this story takes place in 2000, which is good to know in advance because some of the characters’ ages and relationships would not otherwise jibe.  Although an employee video played in the movie suggests the pizza house was a franchise, it may not actually be the case.  When the film ends you’ll be scratching your head about several plot threads, some tied up inadequately, some remaining.  If you’re there for a fun Halloween weekend ride, Five Nights at Freddy’s ticks all the boxes.  If you must have a story crisp and clean, you’re going to be disappointed–some elements are too quickly resolved, others skipped over.

Street cred for the film comes from the welcome personage of Matthew Lillard (Scooby Doo, Scream, The Bridge, Bosch) as the unemployment official Mike goes to for the new job.  Lillard makes every movie better.  Elizabeth Lail (Mack & Rita, Robot Chicken) brings a nice twist to the local cop on the beat looking in on Mike as he works his night shift.

As for the animatronics, they are more of a nostalgic throwback for fans of Showbiz Pizza than the terrifying entities they purport to be.  Do you remember that movie when you were a kid that you watched even though your parents told you that you couldn’t watch it?  This movie doesn’t come close to that level of scares.  So even though it has an R rating, fans of the video games, or the manga or children’s books, or all of the above, are going to want to watch it.  About the worst image is a character getting… snapped… in half and the threats of impending violence.  The shadows and dark filming keeps most of the violence at bay, and a torture device does its business off the screen as well, to the accompaniment of screams.  There’s never onscreen violence to any kid.

An interesting conversation topic for fans of all things borg is whether or not certain story elements transform the animatronics into something that may make them eligible for true cyborg status–something that may be similar to the Daleks of Doctor Who fame, only with an even creepier twist.

Overall the movie works as another installment of Blumhouse’s horror catalog.  It’s similar in quality to the recent release Totally Killer (reviewed here), but not as compelling or thrilling–or as fun–as the Happy Death Day or Halloween movies, and it’s not a brilliant film like The Black Phone, but it’s a better package than many previous Blumhouse films like Freaky and They/Them.  As to its topic, it’s in the same vein as The Boy, M3GAN, Casper the Friendly Ghost, the classic Vincent Price horror movie The Wax Museum, and to a lesser extent Ex Machina.  Abby is a cute and endearing kid character, especially as she talks about her imaginary friends, but neither Mike nor Abby are as strong and smart as the young leads of The Black Phone, even though Mike is an adult.  A misfire of the script is leaving all the resolutions to be handled by the adults instead of the younger set.  This is, after all, a kid-targeted franchise, but the movie forgets that.  Five Nights at Freddy’s is written and directed by Emma Tammi (The Win, Blood Moon) with co-writers Scott Cawthon and Seth Cuddeback.

Is there a possibility for a sequel to explain some of the open threads?  Sure.  Note: The movie has one brief trivial scene during the credits.

It’s good enough, but it could have been better, and unfortunately doesn’t match the hype.  Just in time for Halloween, look for Five Nights at Freddy’s in theaters and streaming on Peacock now.

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