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Five Nights at Freddy’s review: a middling video game adaptation

Bonnie, Freddy, and Chica stand on a stage together in Five Nights at Freddy's.
Five Nights at Freddy's
“Blumhouse's live-action Five Nights at Freddy's is a mildly entertaining, if lackluster, video game adaptation.”
  • The technical artistry of the film's practical animatronics
  • A few exhilarating, laugh-out-loud moments of horror comedy
  • A surprisingly accessible story
  • Too few genuine scares throughout
  • Several superfluous characters and subplots
  • An overlong runtime

In the nine years since it began, the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise has grown to become one of the biggest properties in video game history. As the series’ popularity has grown, so, too, has the complexity of its in-world lore and the backstories of its central, uncannily scary animatronic killers. Nowadays, all it takes is a quick Google search for someone to find out everything they’d ever possibly need to know about Bonnie, Chica, Foxy, Freddy Fazbear, and the family pizza restaurant they haunt. It’s easy to forget now that the series itself started out as nothing more than a simple point-and-click horror game about checking video monitors, locking doors, and resource management.

The most disappointing thing about Five Nights at Freddy’s, Universal and Blumhouse’s new live-action adaptation of the popular video game franchise, is how divorced it feels from its origins. The blockbuster film is anything but simple, and it’s not particularly scary. Instead, the movie is a lore-heavy deep dive into the world and history of its source material — one that delivers more family-friendly moments of animatronic comedy than it does bloodcurdling terror. It isn’t unbearably bad, but it isn’t anything all that memorable, either.

Elizabeth Lail and Josh Hutcherson face each other in Five Nights at Freddy's.
Universal Pictures

At the center of Five Nights at Freddy’s is Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson), a down-on-his-luck mall cop who loses his job after mistaking a moment of tension between a father and son for an actual kidnapping. Forced to find a new gig in order to maintain custody of his kid sister, Abby (Piper Rubio), Mike accepts an offer from his career counselor, Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard), to become the new night security guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a decrepit, long-closed family restaurant from the 1980s. During his first few shifts, Mike not only begins experiencing strangely vivid dreams, but also attracts the attention of Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), a local cop who informs him that Freddy Fazbear’s was closed down after several children went missing there.

What Mike eventually realizes, much to his horror, is that the children who went missing at Freddy Fazbear’s haven’t left the building. As a matter of fact, they have possessed its once state-of-the-art animatronic animals and gotten into the habit of killing anyone they don’t like who steps foot in the abandoned restaurant. When he then brings Abby to work with him one night, Mike unknowingly puts her on the radar of the establishment’s ghostly killers.

Unfortunately, as often as its story opens the door for Five Nights at Freddy’s to hit some truly terrifying beats, it never fully delivers on that front. Instead, every time it seems like the film is going to cross over into some genuinely scary territory, it cuts off its own momentum in order to make way for new exposition dumps and moments of unnecessary relief. Most of these come courtesy of Lail’s Vanessa, whose presence in the film is initially welcome, but feels increasingly superfluous the more times she appears. Contrary to what many may have expected, Five Nights at Freddy’s isn’t concerned with scaring viewers so much as it is with turning its franchise’s established lore into an engaging mystery.

Foxy, Chica, Freddy, and Bonnie stand together in Five Nights at Freddy's.
Patti Perret / Universal Pictures

On the one hand, Five Nights at Freddy’s attempts to do so work surprisingly well. While those familiar with its video game source material will likely see the full arc of its story coming from a mile away, the film manages to weave the personal journey of Hutcherson’s Mike, nothing more than a faceless playable character in the original Five Nights at Freddy’s video game, into the backstory of its haunted restaurant in ways that are often seamless and ingenious. When it leans further into the campiness of its setting and premise, the film is even able to occasionally achieve a darkly comedic tone that is both endearing and impressive.

As admirable and outside-of-the-box as its intentions are, though, it’s hard not to shake the sense throughout Five Nights at Freddy’s, which clocks in at 109 minutes long, that it has gotten a bit too lost in the weeds of its own story. Several of the later scenes between Lail’s Vanessa and Hutcherson’s Mike strive for a profundity that the film never quite achieves. By choosing to focus so much on the parallels between Mike’s past and the tragic backstories of its possessed animatronic killers, the movie also frequently veers too far into a Wikipedia page style of storytelling that prioritizes Easter eggs and exposition over any present-tense drama or horror.

Josh Hutcherson hugs Piper Rubio in Five Nights at Freddy's.
Patti Perret / Universal Pictures

The mostly toned-down nature of the film might not seem so disappointing were it not for the fact that its rare moments of bloodshed are among its most striking. One second-act sequence, which follows a group of teenagers as they break into Freddy Fazbear’s, is so brutal and funny that it’ll likely leave many  viewerswishing there were more scenes like it throughout the film. Emma Tammi’s directorial skills are most apparent during sequences like the one described above, as is the awe-inspiring artistry of the movie’s central animatronics, which were created practically by the craftsmen at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.

In the end, Five Nights at Freddy’s just doesn’t let its biggest stars shine. To its credit, the film succeeds at making what is, on paper, an overly complex story about a haunted pizza restaurant feel shockingly and refreshingly accessible, but it does so at the cost of both its director and its scene-stealing monsters. Whether or not the movie would have been more successful had it stuck closer to the straightforward, point-and-click formula of the original Five Nights at Freddy’s video game is hard to say, but if there’s one thing the new film proves, it’s that sometimes simpler really is better.

Five Nights at Freddy’s is now playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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