Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
For the last 15 to 20 years, films based on comic books have been the dominant force in cinema. However, many feel as though comic book adaptations have had their time, and that a new form of moviemaking will take the throne. The most likely scenario is that Hollywood will shift its focus from comic books, to video games. This seems rather logical, given that the comic book movie boom was responding to Generation X and Millennials’ childhood reading material. Therefore, the next movie boom is responding to Generation Z and Generation Alpha’s love of gaming. As such, we have the release of Five Nights at Freddy’s (2023), based on the popular series of games which became an even bigger phenomenon on YouTube.
We are introduced to Mike (Josh Hutcherson), a young security guard who can’t seem to hold a steady job. This is because he is constantly haunted by nightmares of his younger brother’s unsolved kidnapping. Since his parent’s passing, Mike has been the guardian of his younger sister Abby (Piper Rubio), but social services are threatening to take her away. In need of steady work, Mike’s career counsellor Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard), offers him night-time security work at an abandoned children’s restaurant called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Mike is tasked with making sure no one breaks in, but he soon realises he should be more concerned with what’s inside the Pizzeria. Namely, there are a handful of robotic animal puppets, which come alive and wander around the restaurant. Meanwhile, Mike is visited every night by Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), a local police officer who appears to know a lot about the Pizzeria’s history.
The central premise isn’t a bad place for horror, as many films in the genre have crafted gold out of a lot less. Five Nights at Freddy’s main restaurant setting is a wonderfully realised space with iconic visuals. It’s likely that fans of the games are already aware of the film’s most memorable elements, but that doesn’t stop things like the ball pit, pinball machines, musical stage and neon signs from being just as striking for first time viewers. This also extends to the main robotic creatures at the centre of the story, as all five of them are brilliantly designed, instantly memorable and very impressive, especially considering they are created without computer generated effects. Overall, the production design of Five Nights at Freddy’s is the main standout, meaning there’s at least something to be appreciated by the time the credits roll.
Despite some genuine creativity from Emma Tammi’s direction and Lyn Moncrief’s cinematography, it’s unfortunate that the rest of the film barely measures up. It’s evident that everyone involved put their all into their work, but Five Nights at Freddy’s was broken at a conceptual level long before the cameras started rolling. The film’s initial failing is its completely lacklustre storytelling, which aims for mysterious and tense, but ends up being obvious and tedious. The plot is filled with many twists, turns and reveals, yet none of them are in any way surprising, and they aren’t unravelled in a satisfying way. Instead of letting the audience discover everything with the heroes, we are able to quickly put together what’s happening within minutes, nor is Mike given the chance to figure it all out. Instead, he is just told each plot point one after the other, making the act of watching Five Nights at Freddy’s a very passive experience. This wouldn’t be such a big problem, if it wasn’t for the fact that Five Nights at Freddy’s expects the viewer to be shocked by every story development.
None of this is helped by the fact that the entire film is built around a mysterious serial killer, which ends up being one of the least well hidden villains in cinema history. As soon as the character in question appears on screen, we know immediately that it’s all going to tie back to them. This isn’t helped by the fact that there aren’t enough named characters throughout the film, meaning the viewer doesn’t need to work very hard to narrow down the list of suspects. None of the characters serve any purpose beyond their function in the script, thus we know exactly who will live and who will die as soon as we meet them. This makes it impossible for us to care for any of them, seeing as there’s literally no reason for the viewer to become invested. To be fair, it’s probably for the best that you don’t invest in the plot threads, seeing as half of them are inexplicably dropped without a conclusion.
All of this could’ve been forgiven if Five Nights at Freddy’s provided decent entertainment, but it rarely does. The worst crime a tearjerker can do is failing to make the viewer cry, and by that same token, the worst crime a horror film can do is failing to be scary. With that in mind, Five Nights at Freddy’s is one of the most boring, disengaging and sleep-inducing horror films ever made. It’s so slow for so long, that even the most peace loving viewer will be begging for some over-the-top and gory death scenes. However, by the time the carnage does occur, it’s sanitised to the point where any Disney film qualifies as being scarier. Some may argue the film is less a horror and more a comedy, but Five Nights at Freddy’s barely manages to deliver any genuine laughs.
All that being said, one has to wonder, what exactly is the selling point of Five Nights at Freddy’s? By all accounts, it’s a very faithful adaptation of the games, with easter eggs, references and homages littered throughout. While that’s probably enjoyable for the fans of the series, it offers literally nothing of interest to everyone else. The point of film adaptation should be to take interesting material and introduce it to the cinematic art form, not just regurgitate nonsense for the already converted fanbase. For example, Marvel Studios didn’t become the biggest game in town by making films that only comic book readers would like. They looked at their comics, figured that movie audiences would enjoy them, and tweaked things to make it palatable for non-comic reading viewers. Five Nights at Freddy’s makes the mistake that Marvel avoided, making a film which is just a bunch of references the audience won’t understand or care about. Fans may say that you need to play the game first before seeing the film, but a film which expects viewers to do homework is not a successful film.
Ultimately, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a horror that isn’t scary, a comedy that isn’t funny, and is the absolute worst example of cinematic adaptation. Today’s young moviegoers have grown up in a culture all about nostalgic pandering. Therefore, it makes sense that filmmakers think that all they need to do is pander to Gen Z’s nostalgia and call it a day. However, films famous for their fan-baiting references such as Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) or Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) succeeded for reasons completely removed from their easter eggs. Five Nights at Freddy’s suggests Hollywood may have forgotten that. Although, considering the film has become a massive box office hit, maybe it’s not Hollywood’s fault if things continue to get worse.
Best way to watch it: Apparently you have to play nine video games first… but maybe just watching it with a giant bottle of strong alcohol is better.