Review: FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY'S treats their child fanbase with respect
“I always come back!”
Halloween weekend saw the release of the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of the acclaimed video game series, FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S which if you have elementary - middle school-aged children, you no doubt will have heard of.
Adapted from the popular 2014 computer game which spawned a multi-media franchise of comics, books, and a sea of fan-related works, the film rights to FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S were acquired by Warner Brothers in 2015 and went through a series of developments and setbacks until finally ending up at Universal with prolific horror studio Blumhouse calling the shots.
FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S follows Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games) as Mike Schmidt, a down-on-his-luck everyman trying to provide for himself and his little sister Abby (Piper Rubio).
With his villainous aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson) breathing down his neck attempting to take custody of his little sister, Mike takes a last-ditch job as the security guard of a long-abandoned themed pizzeria called Freddy Fazbear’s at the behest of his career counselor Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard).
What Steve fails to inform Mike of, however, is that Freddy’s is occupied by sinister and sentient animatronic mascot characters- Freddy, Bonnie, Chica, and Foxy- who have their own agenda.
With the help of a local police officer named Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail) Mike now has to solve the mystery of the animatronics and their link to his own past, but he also has to survive…
…FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S.
Made on a paltry $20 million budget (and now crossing $200 million dollars in worldwide box office gross) FIVE NIGHTS is a miraculous film for two reasons: One is that this is the most colorful and one of the more visually interesting horror movie coming out of Hollywood and second, this is a children’s movie that doesn’t patronize it’s fanbase.
The film comes from relatively unknown director Emma Tammi who’s biggest project up until now was horror film THE WIND on Netflix from 2018. Tammi co-wrote FIVE NIGHTS with the original series’ game creator Scott Cawthon and Seth Cuddeback based on a story treatment by Cawthon, Chris Lee Hill, and Tyler MacIntyre.
One, initially, might balk at a PG-13 horror film about fuzzy Chuck E Cheese mascots with nefarious tendencies especially since it was beaten to its own punch by the gory “Willy’s Wonderland” which starred Nicolas Cage in a 2021 film of an eerily similar premise…
…but what FIVE NIGHTS lacks in on-screen violence it makes up for in atmosphere and craft, especially where the mascot characters are concerned, all brought to life in jaw-dropping animatronic glory by the Hollywood legends of the Jim Henson Creature Shop who are responsible for such cinematic spectacles as the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes, 1982’s The Dark Crystal, 1986’s Labyrinth, The Muppets movies, and even the puppets of Sesame Street since the 1960’s.
The beauty of FIVE NIGHTS is that Tammi’s direction is aided by cinematographer Lynn Moncrief who helped capture 2022’s oft-overlooked noir film VENGEANCE.
Moncrief and Tammi perfectly capture the bleak nondescript midwestern landscape the film takes place in well enough that you could be in any Bible-belt state and think “that looks like here”.
We are led, in the film, to believe that this takes place seemingly in the early-to-mid 2000’s and there’s a specific poignancy in the rusted-out and overgrown look of not just Freddy Fazbear’s but the city that it occupies. There’s a very real sense of poverty that makes our hero Mike’s situation all the more relatable.
Tammi also nails the eeriness and otherworldliness around the mascots and, even, the spirits that occupy them in several great sequences involving the wilderness that play into the film’s narrative.
While most horror films (and films in general) have gotten flack as of late for being so oppressively dark as in “I can’t see what the hell is happening”, FIVE NIGHTS is a very well-lit movie that proves you don’t have to sacrifice visual clarity for “mood”. Darker ain’t always better.
FIVE NIGHTS cast, also, is terrific. Hutcherson finally has his own franchise to put his face on, the kind of post-Hunger Games success the boy has clearly deserved for a while now, and he is the believable kind of “everyman” character actor that one could see Tom Hanks playing thirty or so years ago.
Hutcherson’s co-stars, specifically Elizabeth Lail as Vanessa and adolescent Piper Rubio as his sister Abby, really bring the show home as well. Lail played the live-action version of Frozen’s Anna in ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” and her All-American girl next door look and tone here give not only Hutcherson’s Mike comfort but the audience too.
Rubio’s Abby is a wide-eyed and sweet girl and gets to share one of the sweetest scenes in the movie when she is helping to build a fort with the murderous animatronics.
I previously brought up the spirits of the little kids that haunt the animatronic mascots and these are played by five young actors lead by Grant Feely who audiences may know as Young Luke Skywalker in Disney’s “Obi Wan” TV series. Feely gets little more than a few lines here, but he is absolutely chilling to watch and has a presence that will no doubt send his career into the stratosphere later on.
Of course, without getting too spoiler-y, Horror Scream King Matthew Lillard is a joy to watch as ever and really plays into his “SCREAM” days…including a gesture pulled straight from Wes Craven’s 90’s slasher comedy.
I mentioned earlier FIVE NIGHTS is a children’s film that doesn’t patronize the audience, and that also is important.
The world of Five Nights at Freddy’s is chock full of lore so deep and dense that most middle schoolers become textbook-reading scholars by the time they reach high school just trying to piece together the intricacies of this franchise.
The movie is accessible to new audiences (I have never played the games) and, according to fans I’ve spoken to, does a great job at representing the franchise in a way that doesn’t feel “Hollywoodized”, of course that should be expected given the creator himself is directly involved.
The movie doesn’t self-deprecate its source material or fans (Disney’s recent live-action outings) It doesn’t dilute the story or lore to something simplistic and shiny (Looking at you, The Mario Movie) it respects that young adults deserve “real” movies too, something I would argue they haven’t received since (ironically) The Hunger Games in the early 2010’s.
Over the summer, in my review of BARBIE, I had said that the movie was a cultural phenomenon and equated the theater lobbies full of fans dressed in hot-pink as Kens and Barbies akin to the fan-fueled fervor of the late 2000’s and early 2010’s when movies brought people together as events rather than quarterly homework lessons for Marvel fans.
That same energy was palpable in the theater watching FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’s. Tweens and teens came in their shirts and costumes, dragging their parents along, giddily laughing and talking amongst themselves during the movie when “a thing” would happen or some YouTube celebrity would make a cameo.
Despite releasing simultaneously on Universal’s Peacock service, the desire to see this on a big screen resonated with the youth that, we were led to believe, were “killing” movie theaters in a streaming world. This year we have seen the greatest case (Barbie, Oppenheimer, Five Nights at Freddys) that theatrical experiences are back and honestly bigger than ever.
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