To those of a certain age, the human body’s gradual transfiguration into dust will rarely feel more acute than during Five Nights at Freddy’s. Now in theaters and available to stream on Peacock, it’s an underwhelming and ultimately incoherent adaptation of the wildly popular video game series predicated on a fun question: What if the animatronic animals that sing and play instruments on stage at Chuck E. Cheese were actually evil, homicidal maniacs?
It’s a shrewd premise, simultaneously trading on adult nostalgia for the comforts of yesteryear and younger audiences’ astonishment at goofy things that once entertained all the old people. They intersect in a wash of wonderment, sometimes tipping ever slightly so into a sensation of terror, over the uncanny nature of mechanical-motion machines; did Freddy Fazbear’s eyes really squint down into a hungry, angry sneer?
At least that’s what Five Nights at Freddy’s could achieve for general audiences unaware of Easter eggs hidden for fans to spot. (A fan wearing a Freddy head for a post-film selfie next to the poster was on their phone most of the movie, so they probably missed a few.) However, the adaptation plants the feet of the uninitiated firmly on their lawns to hear the usual taunts from the street. “You’ve never even played the game!” True, but I’ve never played Assassin’s Creed or Resident Evil, either, and those are fine. “You’re out of touch with what kids like!” Yes. It will happen to you, too. “You’re just old!” Could you speak up? I didn’t catch that last one.
The true bafflement of Five Nights at Freddy’s is understanding for whom it was made at all, beyond the people whose pockets it will further line. Too complicated to work as a primal gateway fright for kids of single-digit age. Too infantile to invigorate teenagers who have already tasted the harder horror stuff. Too interminable for the adults who woke up way too early today. A five-person screenwriting team — including game creator Scott Cawthon and director Emma Tammi — has conjured what The Vanishing or Prisoners might look like were it produced by Showbiz Pizza and mandated to subliminally promote the purchase of a birthday pizza party package every 10 minutes.
Doing his best to spin edible pie from stale dough, Josh Hutcherson plays Mike, a security guard who would have no luck at all were it not for the bad kind. He has lost his mall job after misidentifying a kidnapping scenario. He’s about to lose custody of his younger sister, Abby (Piper Rubio), to his evil aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson), who just wants the state stipend check. He can’t sleep without the aid of prescription pills and peaceful audiovisual aids. Even when Mike does drift off, he’s haunted by the memory of losing his younger brother at a camping complex years ago … and seeing him driven off by an unknown abductor.
In desperation, Mike takes an overnight job at Freddy Fazbear’s, a dilapidated restaurant on overgrown land at the edge of town. All Mike has to do is keep the place clean and keep people out. So says his not-suspicious-at-all career counselor (Matthew Lillard, who has transitioned from starring in official Scooby-Doo adaptations to guesting in sub-standard ripoffs). Seems easy, but a lot of people can’t hack it. So says the equally not-suspicious-at-all town cop (Elizabeth Lail) who seems awfully knowledgeable about this place. It’s not long before the spooky surroundings start to invade Mike’s dreams — in which he seeks clues that will reveal the face of his brother’s kidnapper — and the animatronic quartet of Freddy, Bonnie, Foxy and Chica reveal themselves … and their interest in Abby as a forever friend.
However briefly, Tammi taps into the terrible torment of Mike’s plight from the past. She visually zeroes in how incidental details imprint on stressful situations, like the lake of ketchup on a hamburger or the bubbling fizz of a spilled soda, and lets Hutcherson convincingly convey the harried, hindered shamble Mike’s life has become. Hutcherson has also taken tips from the Tom Cruise school of conveying character traits through the stance in which you run.
Otherwise, the film works very hard to avoid its general conceit of creepy puppets doing nasty things — legging out to nearly 110 minutes, too few of which feature the impressive puppetry from Jim Henson’s shop to propel the villains. (Only a few bits of CGI are used, namely for Mr. Cupcake — who flies through the air to chomp on people like a blinking, sentient Sentinel from the Phantasm franchise.)
Meanwhile, the narrative collapses in a heap of contradictions and cognitive apathy. If Freddy and friends can leave their homes to lure kids, why haven’t they been doing that for years? If it’s kids they want to join their band, why does the cold open show them entombing the previous security officer in an animatronic costume? If the filmmakers really sought someone to channel Christopher Lloyd’s terrifying pants-pisser of a monologue from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, why did they choose that performer? Individual powers and limitations make no sense, and the film is never fun enough to make you forget it.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Again: We will become dust. Perhaps dust that covers animatronic animals that once “sang” the hits of the Romantics as we ate overpriced, underwhelming pizza. Troubled by that eventuality? Maybe Five Nights at Freddy’s will help you make peace with it.