The idea of the animatronics at a pizza entertainment establishment (Chuck E. Cheese, Showbiz Pizza) coming to life and killing people is a decent horror concept. It made for an addictive and simple horror game when Five Nights at Freddy’s was released in 2014. However, since that game’s success, the franchise has exploded with multiple sequels, novels, and comic books that the online fanbase has studied and scrutinized. All that lore gunks up the idea, turning the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie into a convoluted mess.
The whole film has this tone of being so disinterested in its central premise and more interested in how much fanservice can be crammed in under two hours. This is most evident with the story’s protagonist, Mike (Josh Hutcherson), a down-on-his-luck security guard who can’t maintain a job. Having been traumatized by losing his baby brother at a young age, he fears children being lost to the point where he starts punching parents he suspects of being abductors. This isn’t boding well for him trying to care for his little orphaned sister, Abby (Piper Rubio), who draws a lot and talks to imaginary friends.
Mike’s last chance is to take on the odd job of securing the decayed and shut-down Freddy Fazzbear’s Pizza, a 1980s pizza family place. Why was the place shut down? The local cop, Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), will divulge all of the details to Mike so that he doesn’t have to do an ounce of research. Lucky him. He doesn’t have to play all the games, read all the books, or listen to many lore videos to comprehend all these elements that apparently made fans gasp hard at my screening. But Mike will only slowly be told about the lore of the establishment’s living animatronic characters that are haunted by the ghosts of dead children.
While all of this is happening, it’s revealed that Mike and Abby apparently have the powers to contact the dead. Mike does so through his nightmares, while Abby does so with her imagination and drawings, I think. While all of THAT is going on, Mike’s aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson) is trying to wrestle away custody of Abby and playing up her mean-parent role like a Disney TV movie villain. And while all of THAT is going on, there’s a bigger story about the mystery behind the establishment’s owner and his dark history.
Inexplicable is the best word to describe how everything proceeds in this film. Hardly anything in this script builds in a satisfactory way, and events just happen and are forgotten about. It’s very much an “and then” story, which is probably more satisfying for fans who can add “which happened in this game” at the end of each convoluted plot point. It’s yet another video game movie where it feels like the only way you can enjoy this film is if you come in with a mental laundry list of all the references. For example, the biggest jump scares in the film come from random appearances of Balloon Boy. This inanimate mini statue is never once explained for any significance to Freddy Fazzbear’s Pizza, yet he keeps showing up repeatedly.
I also never bought the horror of the animatronics coming to life, especially since they appear to reflect the simplistic designs of the original game. While they look accurate to the game, they don’t look all that decayed or terrifying, and it’s hard to buy them as creatures that will tear off your face and bite you in half. The film even abandons this element at one point so that the animatronics become cute and cuddly characters, and their murders are briefly forgotten for a silly montage of them building a fort. This confounding staging is present throughout the film, where it feels like half the cast was told this would be horror, and the others told it would be a comedy.
I’m sure there will be an excuse by the fanbase that the film does make sense if you’ve consumed hours of gameplay and YouTube content. But a good film shouldn’t make stuff like that homework. Viewers should be enticed into exploring a franchise and not forced to out of confusion. Most Marvel movies have understood this and didn’t expect their audience to have read a plethora of comics to understand the characters and staging. But even on that level, Five Nights at Freddy’s still fails with its many loose ends never explained within its own narrative. I sincerely doubt there’s an explanation in the lore about why Mike’s financial woes are never felt, why he never goes to other cops for help, why Matthew Lillard’s character is masquerading this whole operation, why Mike’s brother was never found, why Vanessa is a pawn in all this by mere relations, and why Mike feels like a passenger in his own story. And, no, I’m not going to watch hours of “theory” videos on this topic, trying to plug up the many holes in this script.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is a baffling mess of a movie that seems like it requires hours of research to comprehend but not to enjoy or to make sense of anything that transpires in this sloppy video game movie. No amount of cameos by YouTubers CoryxKenshin and MatPat can cover the lackluster story and uninteresting characters of this film that tries to cover dozens of references for the fans and rarely throws its uncertain audience a bone without making it come off like reading a lengthy Wikipedia article. I did catch one reference when MatPat shows up to spout his catchphrase, “But that’s just a theory.” Yes, movie; I, too, have watched YouTube, but I’ve also watched plenty of movies to know that social media citation does not make for a great movie, considering how The SMOSH Movie curdled quickly. Writing as someone with tertiary knowledge of the franchise, I was not impressed with the film’s sloppy assembly and lore-heavy, referential script. I am even less inclined to hear some lengthy dissertation about William Afton’s ill-defined intent with his killer animatronics. Post-text might be fun for the fans to have something more to obsess over, but it comes across like homework for everybody else.