The Spool / Movies
Five Nights at Freddy’s as reviewed by someone who’s never played Five Nights at Freddy’s
Do you need to? Does it matter?
SimilarA Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Silent Hill (2006), The Shining (1980), The X Files: I Want to Believe (2008),
Watch afterBarbie (2023) Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (2023), Oppenheimer (2023) Saw X (2023), The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023), The Marvels (2023),
MPAA RatingPG-13
StudioBlumhouse Productions,
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Do you need to? Does it matter?

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the work being covered here wouldn’t exist.

I have never played Five Nights at Freddy’s. I need to make that abundantly clear before proceeding with this review.

I know that it’s extremely popular, and I know that it takes place in a haunted Chuck E. Cheese-style arcade/restaurant, but that is the sum total of my experience. Despite that, I am going ahead with it anyway, mostly to test the theory that a film based on an already established property should be strong enough to stand on its own, without the viewer needing to keep Wikipedia open on his or her phone.

Does Five Nights at Freddy’s pass that test? Sure, more or less. If anything, the parts that seem like they come directly from the game are by far the most entertaining, watchable moments. It’s the human drama that pads the movie out to a punishing nearly two-hour-long run time that drags it down.

Josh Hutcherson is Mike Schmidt (presumably not named for the former Phillies third baseman), a surly screw-up struggling to take care of his troubled younger sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). When Mike was a child, his younger brother disappeared, an event that so traumatized Mike that he’s a barely functional adult, unable to hold down a job and obsessed with finding out what happened to his brother. Faced with a custody battle for Abby against their nasty aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson, evidently with a mortgage payment due), Mike is forced to take a job offered to him by career counselor Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard), working overnight as a security guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a once-popular family restaurant.

Though it’s been closed for business for over a decade, Freddy’s still stands, and presumably someone is still paying the electric bills that power the whimsically creepy animatronic mascots that populate it. Mike quickly realizes that there’s something amiss about the place, and that’s before the mascots even start moving around by themselves. With the help of Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), a police officer who takes a baffling interest in Mike (and seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Freddy Fazbear’s), he looks into the mystery behind the closing of the restaurant, and how it might connect to his brother’s disappearance.

Five Nights at Freddy's
Five Nights at Freddy’s (Universal)

For something that features an enormous robot chicken armed with a cupcake, Five Nights at Freddy’s is an oddly serious, even dour movie. Now obviously I don’t expect a movie that involves child murder to be a laugh riot, but it is possible to do such things with an undercurrent of dark humor (see, for example, the Nightmare on Elm Street series). Save for Matthew Lillard, who makes a tasty meal of his time on screen, everyone plays it very straight, as if they’re in a gritty psychological thriller instead of an adaptation of a video game popular with children.

Hutcherson in particular makes some baffling choices, playing Mike as less “traumatized” than “gigantic asshole to everyone he meets.” He greets everything that happens to him – the loss of another job, the possibility of an ugly custody battle, murderous animal robots – with the same sort of vague annoyance, and is neither an engaging nor likable hero. He has no chemistry with Elizabeth Lail as Vanessa, and his scenes with Piper Rubio feel less like a brother dedicated to taking care of his sibling at all costs than a guy stuck in an indefinite babysitting job with a kid he doesn’t particularly like. All of their scenes together bring the movie to a standstill, and seem to exist mostly because someone inexplicably decided that the mascots should play a distant second to the human actors.

This is a critical error, because the mascots, designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, are pretty great. While undeniably silly looking, their glowing eyes and churning internal machinery also make them effectively sinister. There’s a certain sort of nostalgic pleasure in watching them perform a routine to the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep,” but you also might not want to be stuck in a dark room with one, and that’s where the strength in the movie lies. That barely a quarter of the film is devoted to them is deeply puzzling.

As gateway horror for a young audience, it’s fine, I suppose, relying largely on jump scares and implied rather than depicted violence. I’m averse to wholly panning it largely because I haven’t played the game, and thus have no idea if maybe the animatronics do actually play second fiddle to a dull, sourpuss human character. Shave twenty-five minutes off the run time and it’s harmlessly silly holiday-appropriate entertainment. As it is, though, it’s a joyless slog, and things only perk up when Freddy and his pals come clanking to rusty life.

Five Nights at Freddy’s is now playing in theaters & streaming on Peacock.

Five Nights at Freddy’s Trailer:

SimilarA Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Silent Hill (2006), The Shining (1980), The X Files: I Want to Believe (2008),
Watch afterBarbie (2023) Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (2023), Oppenheimer (2023) Saw X (2023), The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023), The Marvels (2023),
MPAA RatingPG-13
StudioBlumhouse Productions,