I’m one of those old people that still remembers Chuck E. Cheese from my childhood. Not well, mind you, but enough to remember the mouse logo, animatronic musicians, and pizza. Which by themselves aren’t scary, but it doesn’t take much effort to make something otherwise mundane terrifying. Especially where robotics are involved. No, I’m not going to go off on a tangent about AI (though I easily could), but suffice to say cold, hard metal conveys a dread that flesh and blood cannot.
With this in mind, I decided to see what the fuss was about and check out the movie adaptation of the Five Nights at Freddy’s game series. Mind you I haven’t played any of the games. The closest I got was watching a colleague try a playthrough one time, and marveling at her courage in navigating the numerous jump scares. I am scared quite easily, and it’s only with plenty of practice that I can enjoy horror at all. Even then, I still get frightened pretty quickly, though I’d venture that’s part of the point of the genre. If you’re not scared, then why bother?
Five Nights At Freddy’s hews pretty closely to the games, at least from some research I did before watching the movie. And though I’d like to assure you there are no spoilers in my review, I wouldn’t be able to talk much without some. So this is the point of no return, assuming you don’t want to have anything from the movie spoiled for you. I’ll do my best to avoid the largest spoilers, but I’ll have to reveal some secrets to discuss the more fascinating elements of the movie.
The primary cast of the movie is Mike (ably played by Josh Hutcherson), his sister Abby (Piper Rubio) a sassy cop named Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), and a job counselor named Steve (Matthew Lillard). Mike is a down-on-his-luck security guard tormented by a past incident that has broken him and left him saddled with a lot of bubbling rage. Abby is a quiet girl who only seems to have imaginary friends, constantly drawing pictures and finding ways to throw shade at her older brother. Vanessa shows up about midway through the movie and makes an immediate impact. It’s clear she knows more than she’s letting on, and she brings a lot of good energy and humor to her role. As for Steve, he’s quite something. He’s the reason Mike finds his new job at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, and he alternates between sarcastic glee and quiet introspection.
Every night Mike uses pills, a poster and nature sounds to recall the traumatic moment when his younger brother Garret was taken from him by some cruel stranger. Though he was only about 12 when it happened, it marked him, and he’s ashamed it happened on his watch. Even as an adult, Mike is haunted by this horrible incident and is trying to shape his dreams to recall details that might shed light on who took Garret. Now his life is defined by trying to make enough money to take care of little sister Abby, though that’s complicated by a greedy aunt that only wants custody for the monthly paycheck.
Once Mike starts working at Freddy’s, things quickly start to get weird. Suddenly his nightly recollection of the day Garret was taken gets invaded by 5 ghostly children. He tries to ask them for answers, but at first, they’re unwilling to talk, running away. Weirder yet, when Mike trips and falls in the dream, he wakes up with a gash on his leg. Then just as he’s starting to mellow out, a police car shows up outside. Here he meets Vanessa, and she has a sort of magnetic energy that draws them closer. At one point I thought perhaps she was an ill-fated love interest, but thankfully she serves a far more interesting role.
Things get bloody when Mike and Abby’s aunt decide to force the custody issue by using hooligans to make Mike lose his new job. Their job is to trash the joint for her. Three burly miscreants plus one woman (who has been babysitting Abby for some time to secretly find dirt for the aunt regarding her custody claim) break into the abandoned building at night, and quickly wish they hadn’t.
The most adorable of the animatronics, Cupcake, makes a grisly meal of one man’s face. Another gets crushed to death by Bonnie the Bunny, and Foxy slices up another. When the bad babysitter investigates what happened, she gets lured into a backroom by a child’s voice, and gets a bit too close to one of the animatronics. It’s a bloody spectacle and one of my favorite parts of Five Nights At Freddy’s.
Five Nights at Freddy’s picks up when Mike is forced to bring his sister to work with him after he is unable to find his regular babysitter to watch Abby. He tells her to stay put, so of course she starts getting whispered to by ghostly little voices. When Mike wakes from his nap, he finds her screaming, surrounded by animatronics suddenly come to life.
Or that’s what he thinks, but it turns out she’s squealing with delight, being tickled by the suddenly docile and not murderous machines. She reveals to her big brother that she’s friends with them, and they even go so far as to build a fort with the assistance of Vanessa. It’s surreal and seemingly at odds with the violent scene earlier, but there’s a reason for that we’ll get to later.
Eventually, Mike learns that the reason Freddy’s got closed years ago was the disappearance of several children. The police searched the premises but never found them. Freddy’s has remained in disrepair ever since, other than the security guards hired to watch over it who keep going missing themselves.
Mike makes the connection that perhaps the ghostly children in his dreams are the ones that went missing, and he starts to get somewhere talking with one of them. One cold blonde child offers to make it so Mike’s nightly dreams are happy instead of horrible, there’s just one small cost. He wants Abby to be his friend forever. Which is problematic, since the ghost children are the ones inhabiting the animatronics. Worse, though they’re often childlike and full of joy, they’re under the control of the man who murdered them, one William Afton.
The final arc of Five Nights At Freddy’s is focused on Mike saving Abby from the animatronics. Though they consider her their friend, the malevolent influence of Afton compels them to make her an animatronic, just like them. With Vanessa’s help, Mike fights back with tasers to short-circuit the haunted animatronics. And just when he thinks he’s free and clear, the real villain reveals himself, none other than William Afton in his nightmarish Springtrap suit! He’s a true sadist and takes real glee in the suffering of his victims. Worse, he and Mike have a shared history, and he’s armed with a giant butcher knife. It’s only thanks to Vanessa’s sacrifice and quick thinking on Abby’s part that they make it out alive.
One of my favorite parts of Five Nights At Freddy’s is how they gradually build tension with smart camera angles. The games are all about watching security monitors and slowing down the animatronics. Here, the audience quickly learned to keep our eyes peeled for Freddy and friends walking past doors, casting shadows, and generally getting into trouble. As for the animatronics themselves, they’re brought to life with Henson magic, and express a wide range of emotion with their cold robot eyes. The sound design is intense as well, with one of the first things we hear in the movie being a man frantically trying to unscrew a bolt to escape into an air vent and flee from the murderous robots. Or take my favorite sound, the guffawing song Foxy sings before charging his victims. Visually it’s a really fun time as well, with the decrepit Pizza parlor offering numerous hiding spaces and jump scares.
I enjoyed Five Nights At Freddy’s, even if it perhaps wasn’t as terrifying as I thought it might be. It is rated PG-13, after all, and scenes that would often end in a bloody spectacle have the camera pan away just in time. A lot of the violence is strongly implied, not shown on screen, though I feel that helps build the tension better than a slasher spectacle. While there are a couple of moments where characters chew the scenery too much and one weird plot hole in the final arc, overall I feel this was a very successful adaptation, and I’m hungry for some sequels!