Five Nights at Freddy’s (2023)

by - October 27th, 2023 - Movie Reviews


Five Nights at Freddy’s is a Game Slice of Animatronic Gateway-Horror Worth Playing

Mike (Josh Hutcherson) takes a job as an overnight security guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria. Although the theme restaurant was closed in the late 1980s after a string of child disappearances, the property’s owner still likes to keep things in relatively working order. The place was renowned for its state-of-the-art animatronic characters who interacted with the patrons, and these lumbering mechanical creatures were a mind-blowing wonder. It is almost like they were alive, and it’s Mike’s job to make sure nothing happens to any of them, even though the place has long been shuttered.

Five Nights at Freddy’s (2023) | PHOTO: Universal Pictures

Having never played any of the fantastically popular video games this delightfully sinister horror lark is based on, I was drawn to Five Nights at Freddy’s mainly thanks to the presence of director Emma Tammi and the fact that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was responsible for all of the impressive practical robotic effects. Neither element disappoints. Tammi’s handling of the material is forcefully confident and lovingly character based. As for those animatronics, Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie, Chica, and Foxy the Pirate are astonishing, and the realization they’re real and not generated through CGI gives the proceedings so much extra oomph.

I will be curious to see how die-hard fans react to this adaptation. Tammi, the game’s creator Scott Cawthon, Seth Cuddeback, and Chris Lee Hill have joined forces to craft an original story and a script that, while unafraid to be lethal and show hints of unimaginable darkness not so secretly hiding behind the curtain, is still purposefully fairly tame. This is gateway horror that barely achieves its PG-13 rating, and it was clear to me early on that the filmmakers want their little supernatural meat grinder to work for viewers of almost (emphasis on almost) any age.

This worked for me. Tammi and her gang have developed a tale of internalized trauma that’s very similar in tone, style, and presentation to a pair of 1980s Disney favorites, The Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes. They’ve also paid close attention to Robert Wise’s 1963 classic The Haunting, Frank LaLoggia’s 1988 spooky spellbinder Lady in White, and even 1990s kid-friendly horror television series like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?.

But all of this does mean Tammi can only take things so far before she has to pull back. Those hoping to see Freddy, Bonnie, Chica, or Foxy actually slice and dice anyone’s face off should leave those expectations at home. But still, the director gets to be even more creative with how she showcases the carnage these animatronic monstrosities can exact upon a human body. There’s a great bit of shadow play at one point that’s pretty dang sublime, while — much like with the aforementioned The Haunting — Tammi knows that shrieks of terror and the sounds of off-screen mayhem can frequently be far more shudder-inducing than drowning the screen in viscera and gore.

The film can feel a little slow, and while this sort of methodical pacing worked magnificently in Tammi’s masterful horror-western The Wind, there were moments here when I did glance at my watch and wish things would get to the point. The director also paints in broad strokes. This means certain characters and subplots are more overblown and melodramatic, some might even say blatantly cartoonish, than the core narrative they’re supposedly in support of. This does create a slight tonal imbalance that I found somewhat disconcerting.

None of this ended up bothering me too terribly much, however. Hutcherson is wonderful as Mike, bringing a level of psychologically scarred depth to his performance that is heartfelt and genuine. Piper Rubio is equally up to the challenge, the youngster balancing a multitude of emotional nuances that I was not anticipating. She plays Mike’s much younger sister Abby, and the connection between her and Hutcherson is strong throughout.

There’s an amusing supporting turn from Matthew Lillard as the career counselor who gets Mike his job at the pizzeria, but it’s one that I appreciated more after the film was over. There is a menacing subtlety to his early scenes that is sublime, and I do love how he was able to hold so much back during those moments, considering the carnage that gets unleashed during the film’s final stretch.

Five Nights at Freddy’s (2023) | PHOTO: Universal Pictures

On the flip side, Mary Stuart Masterson is somewhat wasted as Mike and Abby’s duplicitous and conniving aunt, but as the funniest line in the entire production involves her, I’m willing to let that slide. As for Elizabeth Lail as the kindhearted — if somewhat shady — police officer who has Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria on her nightly beat and takes a shine to the new security guard, while she’s very good, her character is a little haphazardly constructed. This has the unfortunate effect of making a climactic Scooby-Doo-style revelation involving the cop not register all that strongly, although if I were coming to this film as a youngster, it’s likely I’d have felt differently.

Be all of that as it may, I still had a blast watching Five Nights at Freddy’s. Even not knowing the lore or being familiar with any of the games, this whole scenario tickled my fancy. Those animatronics are something special, and — as The Wind amply proved — Tammi certainly knows how to create an ambiance in which the location becomes a key character in and of itself. My inner tween went wild on multiple occasions, and if I’d been introduced to Freddy Fazbear and his pals as a kid, it’s safe to say we’d have been horror-loving friends for life.

Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)

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