Video game screen adaptation teeters between cult viewing and a missed opportunity for wider appeal
For his longtime fans Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise, a film adaptation of the beloved horror video game has been on the horizon since April 2015. Created by a trio of creators – Scott Cawthon, Emma Tammi and Scott Cuddeback – it unfolds with a charm more appealing to its fans, if only to the culture. For beginners and other horror fans, FNAF it’s a forgotten film that takes itself too seriously.
The film attempts to infuse a psychological depth to the game’s protagonist, Mike, that its central plot cannot sustain. Josh Hutcherson stars as security guard Mike who reluctantly takes on the responsibility of overseeing Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a family business that closed in the 1980s after a series of puzzling child disappearances.
Mike’s distaste for working the night shift at this decadent “Chuck E. Cheese” place is evident, especially when he confides in the friendly but enigmatic police officer, Vanessa (Elizabeth Lyle).
Failure to keep his job could result in his scheming aunt Jane (Mary Stewart Masterson) taking custody of Abby solely to collect child support payments. Adding to Mike’s anguish, he is plagued by recurring lucid nightmares involving the kidnapping of his younger brother Garrett (Lucas Grant), which intensify during his employment at Freddy’s. Additionally, the pizzeria’s animatronic animal mascots have a habit of coming to life at night, possibly possessed by vengeful spirits.
Director Emma Tammi, whose 2018 feature horror debut The wind showed her craft in textured storytelling, she’s unable to tap into the strange potential of her source material, from her knowledge of games to her imaginations. It also barely summons the grittiness of Freddy’s dark universe, which, in the absence of other ghostly trappings, makes it an incredible horror.
Led by Blumhouse Productions, the film’s predecessors include; Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Get Outand The Invisible Man. Jason Blum is a reliable partner in creating low-budget “camp” horror or more masterful productions, but FNAF can only claim the first by a small margin.
Clocking in at 110 minutes, its pacing and lack of focus make it hard to justify its length, despite having the game’s sinister atmosphere and ever-expanding meta-narrative at its disposal. While it partially succeeds in recreating this riveting strangeness, it unfortunately falls into standard storytelling more often than you’d like.
For many millennials and zoomers, Hutcherson himself evokes nostalgia for fantasy combat with past films like Hunger Games and Journey series. Instead, his tortured, sullen and completely off-the-rails character is not at all likable from the get-go. Add in some anger management issues stemming from a traumatic past, and we end up with a hero very narcissistic in his suffering.
Repeated flashbacks to a vertical dream sequence fail to accomplish anything but drag the pace. halfway through, it’s hard to care about Mike’s mental layoffs when more interesting things are happening with the film’s main kids, aka animatronics.
Lial is overtly tasked with guiding his character and mostly serves as a bearer of cryptic warnings, a complementary role that makes her emotional acting seem overwrought. Until he becomes an integral part of the pizzeria’s diabolical methods and its eventual takedown, a revelation that means nothing after over 90 suspense-free minutes.
Matthew Lillard of Scream and Scooby Doo he has an interesting filmography of slasher hits and low-budget horrors, but his character as a career consultant slash owner of Fazbear Entertainment could definitely have used more screen time to make him a more relatable antagonist.
FNAF, despite its generous runtime, has no room for character-driven storytelling. Mike’s personal story is justifiably surpassed by the imposing animatronics, led by lumberjack Freddy (Kevin Foster) and his companions, Bonnie (Jade Kindar-Martin), Chica (Jess Weiss), Cupcake and Foxy.
Those familiar with the game know that most of the plot unfolds in the control room, and the furry evil animatronics promise us a good number of jumpscares. But FNAF The film disappoints most impressively here. While the control room where Mike works is a repetitive set piece, the cameras show that the animatronics are surprisingly well behaved.
The horror of the film comes entirely from Mike opening cupboards and running through the shelves – to no avail. There is virtually no mounting tension to preface the few jumpscares that are relied upon. This only highlights the horribly missing action that dominates the game.
To its credit, however, whatever grunt there is is impeccably executed. The film creatively uses shadows and flickering lights to stage the animatronics’ deadly encounters with humans.
It could definitely play to its strengths as an indie horror camp. Instead, the film tries to achieve a psychological or atmospheric horror that is difficult when your ghosts are large animal mascots that are easily the best feature of the film.
Creative designer Robert Bennett brings the iconic villains to life in life-size costumes that look exactly like their in-game counterparts. For a plot point that depends heavily on themes of incarnation and mutation, the lack of CGI is helpful.
Stylistically, the film occasionally throws in evocative visuals. An animatronic kill plays out entirely in shadows on a wall which bypasses the need for sticky kill scene props. Mike’s dreams always show a close-up of spilled soda dribbling over the edge of the table, echoing his character’s belief in dreams as a storehouse of memory. The lit-up pizzeria sequences with music blasting and animatronics playing on empty chairs are chilling and tenderly haunting.
While the central narrative is weak, the film maintains a certain level of stability thanks to the makers’ careful adherence to familiar dialogues and story beats, which is satisfying for die-hard fans. Within its gaming fandom, the film has a comfortable tradition of nesting it despite its many flaws and feels more like a prototype for a more developed spin-off.
For others, however, it remains to be seen if Tammi’s performance could rise to the ranks of cult viewership at some point, though I wouldn’t count on it.
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