Five Nights at Freddy’s (2023)
Screenplay by Scott Cawthon, Seth Cuddeback, Emma Tammi
Based on the video game created by Scott Cawthon
Produced by Scott Cawthon and Jason Blum
Directed by Emma Tammi
Rated PG-13, 1hr 49m
Video game movies have, to put it mildly, a mixed history when it comes to making their way from the console to the theater, so it’s no surprise the reactions to the adaptation of the very successful and popular Five Nights at Freddy’s have been decidedly mixed. What has been just a little bit of a surprise has been how much both the general critical consensus that the film isn’t a particularly good movie and the film is a fan-pleasing financial success are, in fact, both true.
Adapting the first game was always going to be a challenge, to be fair, since the original 2014 game doesn’t actually have much in the way of characters and plot. You play as the silent security guard Mike Schmidt, tasked with making sure that the animatronics at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza stay safe during the night and do your best to survive the night once they try to kill you through the power of the jump scare. If you make it through the game, you get to enjoy being fired, but hey, at least you’re not dead! In the later games and novels there’s a lot more development of characters, history, and lore, but there’s so much of it that there was no way that any single film could do more than scratch the surface.
And the road to getting this film made has been a long one, with a lot of starts and stops along the way. Warner Bros. got the rights back in 2015, then it moved to Blumhouse in 2017, where it went though a number of scripts and directors, including Chris Columbus (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), before ending up with Emma Tammi (The Wind). She’d team up with game-creator Scott Cawthon and Seth Cuddeback on the script, and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop came on board to work on bringing the animatronics to life.
The good news for Cawthon and his fellow screenwriters, is that the fanbase has already been primed for a story that’s a remix of the various games since the Silver Eyes trilogy of novels and the anthology novellas have tread that ground already, operating in related but divergent continuities. So where the film adaptations of the Resident Evil games were rightfully criticized for departing too much from the game continuity, as long as the FNaF adaptation played in the same space as the games, the fans were likely to be receptive to any changes required by going from game to screen.
What that means here is that elements from several of the games are pulled together into a new continuity that takes the setting from the first game, pulls in versions of characters and pieces of the lore from later games, and creates a new riff on the overarching storyline. And where that can be the death knell for some game adaptations, here the fans of the game were largely onboard. Throw in a lot of Easter eggs, bring in video content creators who helped popularize the game for cameos, and set up enough of a basis for a sequel in this new continuity, and voila! A film with a $20M budget returns a box office that, as of this writing, is just over $230M. Not too shabby, and the game fans are happy.
In this version, we meet Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games) at a low point in a life filled with tragedy. As a child, he lost his brother in a child-abduction, and as an adult he’s lost his parents, leaving him in custody of his young sister Abby (Piper Rubio). He’s also just lost his mall security job at a time when his aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson, Benny & Joon) is trying to get custody of Abby, so he’s in no position to turn down an offer from his disdainful career counselor, Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard, Scream) for what is more-or-less a last-chance job as a overnight guard at an old abandoned pizza place. He’s also got child services and an unpleasant aunt Jane both threatening to take away his sister, the former because he can’t keep a job and the latter since she wants the government money Mike gets to barely support him and his sister.
Taking the job leads to running into Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie, Foxy, and Chica, the child-ghost-possessed animatronics, and in Mike’s dreams, the ghosts of five murdered children. If you notice a numerical discrepancy there, well, that would be spoilers but the ghost children aren’t exactly friendly, and Mike’s dreams and nightly encounters with them and the animatronics tie together in ways he’s not prepared for. Luckily, a friendly and suspiciously well-informed police officer named Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail, Countdown) stops by each night to fill Mike in on the history of the place and befriend him and Abby.
Then Aunt Jane hatches a plan to sabotage Mike’s job and take Abby away, and things get violent..
So why do the critics dislike it so much?
Well, it turns out that all of the things that make the fans of the games enjoy it so much aren’t things that can paper over a script that doesn’t develop its characters particularly well, can’t figure out what tone or pacing it’s really going for, or can’t hide some logic holes you can throw an ’80’s pizza restaurant through. And for a lot of reviewers, it’s a film that was marketed as horror when it’s just not actually that scary. The PG-13 rating isn’t as much of a barrier here as it might be in other films, since while the games are violent they aren’t actually that gory, but repeated jump scares don’t actually mean tension or scares. And, oddly, very few of the jump scares that are built into the gameplay of the source material are replicated here. Oh, there’s a lot of them, but a good chunk of them are played for laughs or Easter eggs for the fans.
Performances aren’t the issue here, as Josh Hutcherson, Piper Rubio, Elizabeth Lail, Matthew Lillard, and Mary Stuart Masterson are all doing a lot with what they’re given to work with. If, like me, you’re only familiar with Hutcherson from The Hunger Games, you get to see he has range here that he wasn’t allowed to show there. Rubio is a delightfully charming child actor, and serves effectively as the emotional core of the film. Lail manages to provide info dumps while making Vanessa an appealing potential love interest for Mike. And since this has been spoiled pretty much everywhere by this point, Matthew Lillard makes a disturbing and effective villain, to the surprise of no one.
Then we have Masterson’s Aunt Jane, who is completely unnecessary to the story. Oh, Masterson is great in the part, and she’s an actress I always enjoy watching, but every time Jane is on the screen raises the question of why is this character actually here. She’s a threat for Abby staying with Mike, but child services is already that threat in his life. Her plans kick off one of the most violent sequences in the film, and shows the threat of the animatronics, but every moment we’re with her character are moments that we’re away from the main story.
And then there’s Mike’s dreams and the ghost-children sequences within them. We spend a lot of time in Mike’s head, and the more time we do the more the momentum of the film grinds to a halt. Some of these moments are plot related, and they’re OK, but we keep going back, which, while it makes the creepiness of the ghost-children even more apparent, makes Mike’s failure to put certain plot pieces together very frustrating. This just draws attention to the logic problems with the story, starting with a violent act Mike commits at the beginning of the film that realistically would land him in jail, not in front of a career counselor. And then there’s the weird sequence where our murder-bots decide to be friendly to our heroes, which kind of fits into the ghost-children side of the story, but also doesn’t.
Add in a failure for a cop and a security guard to notice the presence of quite a few corpses, our heroes not reacting in a remotely human manner to giant animatronics moving around on their own, and an ending that ignores the rather serious consequences of the climax, and yeah, I can completely see why the critics aren’t as on board as the fans. But FNaF isn’t a film that’s meant to be anything other than a film for fans of the games, and while that doesn’t make it critic-proof, it does explain why fans are enjoying it and critics aren’t. As someone who has never played the game but who spent a night a few years ago going down the FNaF lore rabbit-hole, I can see the appeal for the fanbase. They’re not here for pacing, developed characters, and logic; they’re here to enjoy watching Freddy and the rest come to life and all the Easter eggs and references the filmmakers have put there for them.
And, clearly, that’s good enough.