Five Nights At Freddy's (2023)

OCTOBER 27, 2023


If anyone ever doubted my commitment to the theatrical experience over streaming, I only have to recount the 4:30 showing of Five Nights at Freddy's at the AMC Fallbrook 7 in Los Angeles, October 27, 2023. I've already gotten bewilderment from friends and it just happened; 20-30 years from now anyone I tell will probably just think I'm a confused old man making up "walked uphill in the snow both ways" kind of nonsense. But trust me, while it's still fresh in my mind, I sat through the entire movie* with a crowd full of teens who had normal volume conversations, wandered around in the theater, filmed the screen for Tiktok/Instagram reels whenever the robots were on screen, etc. All for a movie I could have just watched at home, since it premiered day and date on Peacock.

And the funny thing is it could have been worse! My seat, directly in the middle of row C, was taken by a teen girl who flanked by all her pals, so I knew pulling rank and making her move would just leave me in between a bunch of 12-14 year olds I'd probably have to shush 43 times during the film, and since her actual seat was also taken by someone who wasn't where they were supposed to be, I just sat in one of the handicapped companion seats at the back, where I only had to listen to the nonsense of the people directly around me and let the movie's audio drown out the rest. I mean, the people near me were still morons (including one of the "let's film the screen" dipasses, and a kid who kept inexplicably tossing and turning on his recliner seat like a restless sleeper), but, again: it could have been worse!

Anyway, the movie is fine. I must admit I know next to nothing about the source material, as I played the first game when it popped up on Game Pass (or PS+, I can't remember now) and after about ten minutes shut it off and uninstalled it, finding little enjoyment from its cruddy presentation and boring gameplay, which (for the even less acquainted) involved clicking through security camera angles and making sure the Chuck E Cheese-esque animatronic mascots (including the eponymous Freddy) didn't see you. Riveting stuff. Apparently, it's this game and its sequels that helped popularize the idea of watching others play video games, because the game itself isn't very fun to play but it's fun to watch others get scared, I guess? I dunno. I am "Watching others do things isn't as fun as doing them myself" (or 43) years old.

But the kids who know it inside and out seem to agree it's done a good job of translating the games to the big screen, so I guess the movie is a success for them. And that's fine! Most video game adaptations work so hard to welcome newcomers that it ends up alienating the people who loved the games and made it an attractive IP in the first place (Resident Evil is a good example), so it's nice to see one going the other way. Not that it's impenetrable or anything (though the plot is a bit convoluted, more soon), but given the limited scope of the games themselves, the filmmakers and Blumhouse had an easy gig here: stay true to the games by including stuff from the sequels, keep the budget low, and boom: a film that can spawn its own sequels, and quickly burn through the games' stories so they can start making their own. It's kind of genius in a way.

For those who don't know anything: the movie is about a guy named Mike (Josh Hutcherson) who has trouble holding down a job due to a quick temper and a lifelong obsession with finding out who kidnapped his little brother from a campground when he was younger. He witnessed it happening, and believes that he can find clues to the culprit's identity if he makes himself repeatedly dream about the crime (a poster for where it occurred and a tape of nature sounds ensures he dreams only of this and not, I dunno, being naked at school). Then his PO (Matthew Lillard) finds him an ideal gig: working the night security job at a defunct arcade/pizzeria called Freddy Fasbear's, which needs security because the owner wants to keep the place intact and it attracts vandals. Mike brings his tape recorder and poster along to help him sleep through the gig, but something creepy is happening...

If the movie burned through all of this exposition in 15 minutes, it'd be fine. But it takes around 40 minutes for him to arrive for his first night on the job, because there's even more plot to get through involving his little sister Abby, who he is now responsible for after their mom died and their dad took off. Their aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson) wants custody, so he has to prove he's fit to raise her, which is tricky when he keeps losing jobs and his newest one means he won't even be home at night, prompting the need for an overnight sitter with her OWN plot contrivances to add to the mix. Given the target audience, I was legit stunned at how sluggish the pacing was, and how the endless backstory kept the robots off-screen in the meantime. Not that they were likely worried (and given the box office numbers, they were right!) but we already basically had this movie in 2021 with Willy's Wonderland, which was a mercifully brief 85 minutes, so it's kind of baffling that they didn't think to speed things up and maybe streamline the plot a bit. I mean, the title tells you how far along you are, and by Night #3 I already felt the movie should have been close to wrapping things up, runtime wise.

And I haven't even mentioned Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail from Countdown), a cop who keeps showing up during Mike's shift and being cryptic. In fact a lot of the movie relies on people simply not saying anything and being needlessly vague, reaching a boiling point when Mike has the evil aunt come over to babysit but tells Abby "Come here, I want to talk to you about something," which of course makes the girl think he's giving up and letting the aunt adopt her. All he had to do is say "Hey, I have to go somewhere, and I know it sucks, but your aunt is going to have to watch you today," but instead he acts suspicious and opaque for no reason. A late reveal in the movie practically turns Vanessa into an accomplice for the villain, and for the life of me I can't fully grasp why she didn't divulge this information sooner.

The movie also curiously can't decide if the creepy animatronics are evil or good, which would be fine (and fun!) if there was a Krusty doll-style switch on their backs to make them switch, but nah. They take a liking to Abby and make forts with her and stuff, but we've already seen them kill several people by this point (a guy in a cold open, plus a gang of vandals hired by the evil aunt to trash the place so Mike will lose that job, too), so it's a little late for the good-natured "Aww, the lonely girl has friends!" approach it's going for. And when you consider the backstory (which I won't spoil) it's kind of weird to see them get smashed up by Mike in the third act (reminded me of the new Star Wars movies telling us that Stormtroopers are real people who were forced into their gig, and then having our heroes "triumphantly" kill a lot of them anyway).

They look great though. The Jim Henson company made them, and they not only look exactly like the characters in the source material (take that, Michael Bay!), but they move believably too - you see them move around on their own (not faked by hiding the legs or something) but they're still jerky and awkward, without the grace of a human performer to betray the idea. There's one exception, but it turns out there IS a living human inside it, so that's fine. Also, speaking of the human villain, I can't explain the particulars without it spoiling things, but the way the audience is tipped off to their identity is kind of brilliant (for those who have seen the movie, you probably know what I'm talking about, but if not: it involves a knife), and doubly fun when you consider the performer's other best-known role, as they get to be on the other side of such a reveal.

And even though it's too damn long, I was impressed how un-kid friendly it was, with a plot involving murdered children and a few gruesome deaths. PG-13 deaths to be sure, but I mean: someone being torn in half is hardcore even if you're not seeing it fully on display (it's done with shadow). As long as they have the patience for a slower unfolding of a plot than they might be used to, it's a rare gateway horror from this generation that doesn't have the "family friendly" kiss of death on it that can be a turnoff for some (kids or parents). It may be slow, but it's a legit horror movie, not a teen comedy with some spooky trappings. In fact there are actually few moments of levity in it at all; Lillard has a few funny deliveries and the aunt's lawyer is clearly afraid of her, but otherwise it's humor-free.

But again: I'm not the target audience. The fact that I stuck around for the whole thing even as I contemplated murdering the people around me proves it's got some genuine appeal, and with tightening (and a better crowd) I might have legitimately enjoyed the thing, maybe even enough to try the game again. The score was solid, it's always nice to have a male lead in a horror movie aimed at younger folks, and I loved the robots when they were actually on-screen (plus their bizarre Saw-level mechanisms that serve to kill their victims). And as my own kid gets closer and closer to being able to watch a genuine horror movie, I'm always happy to find another possible choice for him to make that jump, even if I don't particularly love it. So it might be a bit too much for say, a nine year old (due to the slow pace and occasional violent death), but for teens who have been kept from R fare thus far, it's a great way to start dipping their toes into the deep end of the genre, both for the more involved story and the potential nightmare fuel. Too old for Hocus Pocus but too young for Serbian Film? Five Nights at Freddy's got you covered!

What say you?

*Except the post-credits scene. I knew it had one, but I also knew that as a non-gamer it would likely just be teasing the sequel with a character I didn't recognize, so I didn't bother waiting. I read a description online later, and sure enough: it meant absolutely nothing to me. But I discovered the cab driver was a popular Youtuber making a cameo for the fans, so... OK, sure.


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