Ordinarily, I’d say we shouldn’t even think about adapting such an essential, sacred and profane text as Scott Cawthorn’s point and click videogame Five Nights at Freddy’s, but we’re living in desperate times. There are different formats to the game, but each of them seems to involve facing down large, sinister animatronic animals in an abandoned 80’s Chuck E Cheese-style family restaurant and I’m totally down for that.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is already posting large numbers for makers Blumhouse, and looks certain to be a sure-fire hit/franchise-starter/universe-expander/eventual turnoff; it’s a odd little film, but has a childish, dream-logic to it. This is an original narrative constructed to provide a way in to a previously established, elaborate legacy back-story about how Freddy Fazbear’s pizzeria came to house the spirits of murdered kids inside their mechanical monsters; no spoilers required, this info is all in the trailer when they mention ‘ghost children possessing giant robots’. Mike (Josh Hutcherson) is struggling to raise his little sister Abby, and takes a dead-end job in the hopes of a better optics in a custody battle with his aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) ; Mike sits, like the game-player, alone in front of a bank of monitors, waiting for the creatures to come get him.
That Matthew Lillard plays Steve Raglan, the shifty career counsellor who matches Mike to this derelict amusement area, is an immediate red flag that something bad is going down. Looking like the late crooner Roger Whittaker, Lillard is signed up for the first three of these movies, so it’s no surprise that his role is reprised later on. There’s also friendly local cop Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail) who may or may not be what she seems, and a hired faction trying to cause grief to negatively influence Mike’s custody case; they break into Freddy’s to smash the place up, and face the consequences. But this isn’t a revenge slasher movie, it’s something rather stranger and more convoluted; Mike has his own tortured backstory which connects to the central narrative, while the resourceful Abby stops hiding in ball-swamps and talks to the creatures, replacing her own imaginary friends with potentially deadly ones. Rather than the obvious killer-robot-massacre scenario we might expect, we get to find out what the creatures’ deal is and why.
Five Nights at Freddy’s makes up the third part of Universal’s fresh IP horror bonanza with Cocaine Bear and another Blumhouse production, M3GAN; like the above, it’s a choppy yet oddly iconic PG-13 horror movie aimed firmly at kids. The darker undercurrents mean that Emma Tammi’s film ends up playing like The Black Phone but with a lot less violence and better than-required central performances which elevate the material. And I guess we just have a thing for malfunctioning robots; if this is an inverted Chopping Mall for our times, it’s because we are not just becoming the monsters we were warned about, but we now sympathise and empathise with clockwork killing machines emerging from the dark to attack generally horrible people. Like it or not, that’s where we are in October 2023, and Five Nights at Freddy’s rides that wave of couldn’t-care-less nihilistic abandon with some success. In cinemas and on pay-per-view streaming, it’s a licence to print money this Halloween.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is out now in the UK and released simultaneously on theaters and on Peacock in the United States by Universal Pictures on October 27, 2023.