FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S. A Solid Hit for Halloween [REVIEW]
When I saw the title Five Nights at Freddy’s in the movie previews, my thoughts automatically turned to a certain handsome tormentor from nightmares who made his screen debut over three decades ago thanks to a gentleman named Craven. However, it turned out that this association was off the mark, and Freddy in the title has nothing to do with A Nightmare on Elm Street. My surprise was even greater when I discovered that Five Nights at Freddy’s is based on a popular series of computer games, the existence of which, I admit, I had no idea about. My ignorance regarding the pop-cultural hits of today’s teenagers (the series also includes books) is, however, my problem alone. Therefore, I decided to go see Five Nights at Freddy’s and see how this film fares for someone who hasn’t even been near the game or its derivatives.
The games in the Five Nights at Freddy’s series are based on a simple concept, in which the player’s task is to survive in an abandoned restaurant inhabited by dangerous robots representing friendly mascots. A pretty good starting point for a horror movie as well. Emmy Tammi’s film (Prairie Demons) takes this concept and expands the skeletal plot with meaningful characters. Protagonist Mike Schmidt is still a night guard at the long-closed Freddy Fazbear’s pizzeria, but here we learn a lot from the start about how he ended up there. Mike is a life’s misfit, raising his younger sister Abby with difficulty, spending her days drawing and talking to imaginary friends. The shadow of the man’s life is cast by a trauma from the past—years ago, at a family picnic, his brother was abducted before his eyes. Mike devotes every night to using memory extraction theories to recreate that situation in his dreams and find a solution to the mystery of what happened to the missing brother. As a result, he is not the best employee, leading him to the desperate step of accepting at least a suspicious offer to work as a night guard in the pizzeria. There, he encounters disturbing, mechanically animated mascots that he will eventually have to face.
Tammi draws heavily from the game’s aesthetics, which in itself strongly evokes current nostalgic vibes and the retro atmosphere of malls, game rooms, and amusement parks. Therefore, in the initial parts, the audiovisual setting of the film gives the impression of watching a Stranger Things spin-off or another incarnation of Black Mirror. However, the odium of sameness eventually dissolves in a solidly constructed, unique world concept that holds the viewer’s attention even if it is filled with borrowings or paraphrases. What distinguishes Five Nights at Freddy’s from many similar horrors is the unexpectedly well-executed plot. While it may not have Hitchcockian tension and Shyamalanian unpredictability, the story focused on Mike is not as obvious as it could be and offers at least two solid plot twists, not shying away from natural humor and absurdity. They may not be mind-blowing, but they are enjoyable, like the entire staging of the deadly confrontation with the ghosts that possess the animatronic machines in the abandoned children’s sanctuary. Tammi doesn’t kick open doors, but she also doesn’t settle for mechanical staging of horror sequences, skillfully preparing for the next confrontations and plot twists with the sensitivity of a genre fan.
In this task, she is also helped by the well-cast Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games) as Mike and Elizabeth Lail (You) as Vanessa, a policewoman wandering around the suspicious pizzeria. Both smoothly fit into the archetypal conventions assigned to their characters, and their interactions show the right amount of chemistry, giving the story an organic breath. Therefore, even more is not needed from Piper Rubio, who embodies Abby with a rather average effect, for the story to stick on the level of interpersonal relationships. The icing on the cake, however, is the small but distinctive role of Matthew Lillard, whose presence is both a wink to genre fans and a capitalization of an actor who fantastically performs in ambiguous horror roles.
After assembling all these elements, Five Nights at Freddy’s turns out to be a very solid genre work. The film doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. Despite the presence of a moral lesson, it doesn’t bury itself in unnecessary dialogue scenes, but it also doesn’t try to dismiss the viewer with cheap jump scares and a pretext plot. Emmy Tammi’s film has all the makings of a reliable Halloween hit that can be enjoyed by the whole family (the film has a PG-13 rating)—neither younger nor older viewers will have much to complain about.