FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY'S Review: Too Much Trauma Drama, Not Enough Horror

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY'S Review: Too Much Trauma Drama, Not Enough Horror

Elevated or not, on-screen or off, trauma and the horror genre (and vice versa) have been practically synonymous for the better part of the last decade, if not longer.

But tip the scales too far in one direction (i.e., trauma) without giving audiences what they both want and expect (i.e., horror) and the subpar, underwhelming result looks, sounds, and feels unmistakably like Five Nights at Freddy’s, the much anticipated adaptation of the indie videogame series created by Scott Cawthon in 2014.

Repeatedly undermined by an over-dependence on lore, Five Nights at Freddy’s opens promisingly enough in media res, as a sweaty, unnamed security guard desperately scrambles through Die Hard-sized vents, breathing a sigh of temporary relief when the coast appears all clear. It's not. After discovering his one and only exit blocked, he's overpowered by an unseen figure. It’s not long before he’s strapped down and confronting a furious-looking animatronic head filled with buzzing, spinning mini-saws. Five Nights at Freddy’s PG-13 rating, though, means audiences won't see what happens next to the unlucky security guard, leaving his fate up to audience imaginations.

Five Nights at Freddy’s hits the pause button at that moment to play catch-up with the ostensible protagonist, Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson), a twenty-something security guard with a headful of trauma and a younger, preteen sister, Abby (Piper Rubio), inexplicably under his care. With his parents offscreen (mother dead, father otherwise gone) and the only living relative, Aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson), motivated by greed and not compassion, Mike faces a hard, possibly impossible choice: straighten up or risk losing custody of his sister.

Not content with saddling the hapless, parentless Mike with caring for his sister, the screenplay credited to Cawthon, Seth Cuddeback, and director Emma Tammi (The Wind) takes it one traumatic step further: Mike’s emotional instability and volatility can be traced back to the moment when a stranger (as in “stranger danger”) kidnapped his preteen brother, Garrett (Lucas Grant), from a public campground years earlier. That kind of life-shattering experience enough — or should be enough — to send the average person into long-term psychiatric care or even institutionalization, not serving as the sole custodian and guardian to his preteen sister.

Lapses in everyday logic and/or common sense, though, arrive with regularity as Five Nights at Freddy’s unfolds over it's nearly two-hour running time. After losing a security gig at a local shopping mall, presumably dooming his chances of remaining Abby's guardian, Mike gets an unusual second chance, working the overnight shift at Freddy Fazbear's Pizza, a long-abandoned family fun/entertainment center. Apparently, it’ll pay the bills and prove Mike’s worthiness to remain Abby’s guardian, but for that to happen, Mike has to last more than a few nights, unlikely given the fates of his predecessors as a security guard.

The trauma-first, horror-last script piles on the weirdness via a regular visitor, Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), an over-eager beat cop apparently obsessed with the center. Woefully ignoring her beat duties, Vanessa visits Mike almost every night, sharing bits and pieces of the center’s history (lore by another name) and warning Mike to be extra careful on his rounds, especially around the center’s animatronic mascots, Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie, Chica, and Foxy, who stand in lonely, frozen repose on the center's main stage, awaiting their return to the limelight.

They’re less family-friendly, of course, than family-terrifying, but too often, they remain on the sidelines while Mike works out his family-sized trauma, obsessively revisiting his brother’s disappearance via lucid dreaming while semi-neglecting Abby. It can be painful to watch, less physically than emotionally, as Mike’s backward-looking myopia almost proves his undoing and Abby’s after she meets and befriends the animatronic mascots. They take to Abby like she’s one of their own. (Fans and non-fans of the videogames obviously know better.)

Stuck too long in idle, filling in backstory via exposition, revealing the central mystery too early, and leaving both the characters and the performers playing them adrift in time-wasting, wheel-spinning non-action scene after another, Five Nights at Freddy’s never gets out of its own way to deliver what audiences in theaters and viewers at home expect: murderous animatronic robots wreaking all kinds of havoc on suspecting and non-suspecting visitors alike.

To be fair, it does happen, just too infrequently and too often, sporadically, saving the best (Mike and Abby versus the Jim Henson Shop's singular creations) for last, long after most audience members have checked out.

Five Nights at Freddy's premieres in movie theaters and on Peacock on Friday, October 27. Visit the official site for more information

Five Nights at Freddy's

  • Emma Tammi
  • Scott Cawthon
  • Seth Cuddeback
  • Emma Tammi
  • Josh Hutcherson
  • Mary Stuart Masterson
  • Lucas Grant
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Elizabeth LailEmma TammiFive Nights at Freddy'sJosh HutchersonMatthew LillardPiper RubioScott CawthonSeth CuddebackMary Stuart MastersonLucas GrantHorror

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