Five Nights at Freddys Poster

Five Nights at Freddy’s (2023) Review

Browsing through the latest box office stats, my amazement over the hit that is Five Nights At Freddy’s grew exponentially. Based on a video game about animatronic toy animals going haywire at night at a pizza parlour, the movie didn’t really have any specific incentive to go out and watch for me – a sentiment not helped by the fact that it’s a PG-13 (read: neutered, in all likelihood) big studio movie and, full disclosure, neither by my total ignorance of the source game material.

I know I’m late to the party now but, intrigued by its apparent success, plus the fact that its director and co-writer is Emma Tammi, a filmmaker I hold in high regard for having bestowed the excellent western-horror movie The Wind (2018) upon us, I decided to give it a spin and share my take on it after all.

Five Nights at Freddy’s sets the table right away by opening with the off-screen kill of an unnamed security guard by an animatronic that reminded me of Jigsaw somehow; must have been the whirring and clicking of its mechanics. Next, we’re introduced to Mike (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games franchise, 57 Seconds), a down-on-his-luck, subdued and troubled but kind-hearted man and doting caregiver to his early-teen sister Abby (Piper Rubio, Unstable, For All Mankind). Desperate for a break, his social counsellor (Matthew Lillard, Scream (1996), Thir13en Ghosts) gives him one: a gig as a night guard at the abandoned pizza restaurant cum kid’s theme park Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza.

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Struggling with his sister-in-law’s (Mary Stuart Masterson, The Sisters, Daniel Isn’t Real) custody battle over Abby, and reluctant to work nights, Mike ultimately accepts his counsellor’s offer and snoozes himself through his first shift, aided by sleeping pills that he takes to induce dreams. Turns out that he’s guilt-ridden by the kidnapping of his younger brother, something he witnessed while out on a family picnic.

He’s trying to relive this tragic occurrence through his dreams to somehow find the identity of the kidnapper he’s convinced must be stowed away somewhere in his subconscious memory. Meanwhile, he gets regular visits by local beat cop Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail, Dead of Summer (TV), Ordinary Joe (TV)), whom he develops friendly terms with but who seems to know more about what’s going on in the pizzeria than she’s letting on.

As the third act kicks in, most of the plot lines appear to tie into each other one way or another, and they get resolved in a way that is satisfying enough, leaving an opening for one or more sequels that are reportedly already confirmed to be happening at some point by the signing of a three-movie franchise deal by Lillard. Which is something I applaud, because he brings some much-needed oomph to the proceedings.

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The rest of the cast, while serviceable, just seems to be kind of there, with Hutchinson as our main protagonist sleepwalking himself, sometimes literally as the script so requires, through the proceedings. He’s not unlikeable per se, but a stoner doesn’t make an engaging character unless the script loads him with something, like humorous quips. But that doesn’t happen here, Mike never becomes much more than a pitiful plodder. The movie mostly takes itself dead serious anyway (aside from Masterson’s deliciously over-the–top delivery as the sister-in-law from hell), which is kind of confusing for a non-initiate to the game like myself, watching haunted giant toy animatronics without any knowledge of the source for reference.

The tonal confusion in the movie is not helped by the projected target audience, ensuring a PG-13 rating by design. Five Nights At Freddy’s is essentially a haunted-house slasher film, and all the kills are bloodless and happening off-screen. A notch-down rating should not be in the way of making a horror movie effectively work as one if filmmakers, screenwriters in particular, get creative with the restrictions they impose upon themselves (Happy Death Day comes to mind), but that’s not what happens here either.

Five Nights at Freddy’s remains and upholds all the tonal traits of a haunted-house slasher, presented in such a way that the coveted market-widening rating is secured. But to borrow a quote from the legendary John Carpenter: the box office is always right. And looking at the film’s ticket revenue, who am I to tell them that they’re all wrong.

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My critical gripes aside, the movie does have things working for it. The animatronics, all practical and created by Jim Henson Creature Shop, are truly a sight to behold. CG is applied sparingly and only where it should be applied in live action movies such as these: to enhance and embellish the visuals that have been filmed, not drawn, to begin with.

And at its nearly 2 hours total runtime, even when the film starts to drag a little during its second act, with Mike settling into his situation and the parallel storylines getting fleshed just out a tad too long. But Tammi knows when it’s time to move back to the pizzeria where all the action is, and she manages to keep the proceedings menacing and maintaining a sense of dread throughout, without getting overly repetitive.

Technically, and aside from my objections against the neutering edits in movies such as these, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a splendid achievement. The lighting did a particularly noteworthy, South-Korea-level (the cinema lighting standard everything else is measured by in my view) job here, with most of the action taking place in nighttime. Every visual detail, and there are lots of them, is clearly visible without ever seeming off or artificial. And while not an actual period-piece, with all those animatronics going on, the movie does bring a cute retro-vibe with it.

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When the end credits rolled, I was entertained enough to wash away the thought of having to sit through any of that Christmas film excrement dumped on us by the likes of Lifetime and Hallmark (having to watch those, now that is a scary thought. No worries, it was, and remained, just a thought. I’m fine) or, God forbid, a Santa-slasher. Most of the game references and red herrings in Five Nights At Freddy’s may have flown over my game-oblivious head, but it was still an okay movie.

It’s not particularly scary or memorable, but Five Nights at Freddy’s is a perfect example of the kind of movie I would have gone to the drive-in for back in the day with whoever I managed to hook up with when I was still young and stupid. And considering the revenue splash it made, it looks like I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Five Nights at Freddy’s is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Platforms via Universal.

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