An initial glimpse into “Five Nights at Freddy’s” (2023) doesn’t look positive: A Blumhouse-produced adaptation of a 2014 indie video game, the film has been stuck in various stages of production for eight years. Under the surface, however, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” gives new viewers and longtime game series fans a truly unusual experience. Not fully divorced from the game’s extensive and mysterious lore nor fully attached to it, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” attempts to make the in-between work. As far as whether it works — well, that all depends on how willing viewers are to follow its wild shifts in tone through the end.
Fans of the game series (which includes the original game, three sequels and two spinoff games: “Sister Location” (2016) and “Pizzeria Simulator” (2017)) will already be aware of parts of this movie’s development story. Since 2015, just a year after the first game’s release, an adaptation has been in the works. After that, the movie’s creative team bounced around for years. Scott Cawthon, the game’s creator and fierce defender of his specific vision for the series, seemed to endlessly reject screenwriters’ ideas, until 2022, when the project finally managed to make real progress with the help of director Emma Tammi. Since then, it’s had a whirlwind of a production process (and production leaks). Finally, in October, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” was ready to hit theaters.
The movie features performances from Josh Hutcherson, who plays Mike, the new night guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, and Piper Rubio as Abby, his little sister. Hutcherson does an exceptional job of being crusty in an older-brother-trying-his-best way, while Rubio plays the standoffish younger sister equally well. And while Matthew Lillard’s role in the film is not a standout in his illustrious career (see his features in “Scream” (1996), “Scooby-Doo” (2002) and "Thirteen Ghosts" (2001)), he does push his way to the front of the cast thanks to his constantly quirky line delivery as an odd career counselor. Unfortunately, not every performance is a win; Elizabeth Lail’s turn as Vanessa, a local police officer, wavers from scene to scene, leading to a less-than-complete character depiction by the end of the film.
Deviations from established lore in the original games will distract die-hard fans, but cameos from notable internet personalities in the FNAF sphere will please them. While one originally planned cameo is absent, to the dismay of viewers across the theater opening night (yes, it’s the one you think), the cameos in the final cut are sure to please those who are in the know. For the uninitiated, these characters will seem like extras with a weird amount of lines that seem to be referencing something specific without giving the context necessary to understand what they’re saying.
The film’s scare factor relies on four hulking animatronics featured heavily in the trailers and promotional material, pulled directly from the first “Five Nights At Freddy’s” game. Crafted by the experts at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the animatronic villains are the true highlight of the film. The scale of the animatronics alone is enough to give anyone a chill, but the level of detail in the film, like abandoned Chuck E. Cheese robots touched by thousands of greasy pizza hands, makes the movie especially convincing. A limited amount of effects in the film are done digitally, especially in regards to the animatronics themselves, lending a feeling of realism to their existence.
The film leads audiences through a series of intense tone changes, from child abduction to fort building to custody battles, with no warning. If viewers are willing to play along, the film’s brand of humor delivers with a few minor scares. If they don’t, the film feels long, without real substance in humor or horror to justify its runtime.
“Five Nights at Freddy’s” can’t decide whether to alienate its fanbase or its potential new viewers, which inevitably leads it into a middle ground — unable to satiate fans who begged for a truly harrowing, R-rated experience, while also unable to give the new viewer enough to latch onto with characters or story. By trying to satisfy all parties, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” satisfies none.