A down-on-his-luck security guard accepts a dead-end job overwatching a decrepit former children’s entertainment center. This seemingly simple task turns sinister when deformed animatronics come to life in “Five Nights at Freddy’s.”
For many avid gamers, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” carries an enticing mystique. The 2014 indie game locks players in the claustrophobic confines of an antiquated security room. The mundane tasks of checking security cameras and doors lull players into a comfortable formula before killer animatronics jump out of nowhere to end your play session.
The robots are essentially a nightmarish rendering of the outdated, Chuck E. Cheese-esque creations that frequented many of my generation’s childhoods. Distorting these once-innocent images into murdering machines delivers an alluring macabre atmosphere — a distinctly treacherous world that resonated with enough gamers to spawn a massive new franchise.
Few movies, books or video games fill me with angst and genuine dread, but the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” games are a rare exception. The creaky retro environments, oppressively dim lighting and dilapidated conditions set a discomforting stage that culminates in an onslaught of brilliantly timed jump scares. I began replaying the games recently to coincide with the movie’s release and they somehow still possess the same unnerving power with me today.
In stark contrast, the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” film adaptation renders more yawns than screams. This limp, personality-free feature ignores its source material’s signature charms to concoct a sterile, easily digestible product solely designed to line studio executives’ extravagant pockets.
“Freddy’s” commits the same cardinal sins that have plagued video game movies for generations. While the games relied on mood and aesthetics over narrative in creating an arresting world, the film forces an entirely thankless story that adds little to the table. The plights of central protagonist Mike Schmidt and his introverted sister resemble the same hackneyed mechanics one could find in a straight-to-video feature. No nuance or vibrancy is imbued in either figure; they exist only as empty ciphers whose sole purpose is to move the story along.
Buried beneath the meaningless meandering in “Five Nights at Freddy’s” lies a thoughtful concept. I respect that series creator/co-writer Scott Cawthon and co-writer/director Emma Tammi attempt to tackle what makes Freddy Fazbear and his compatriots so fascinating, mainly the twisting of colorful characters into morbid representations of death and destruction. This angle offers a potentially intriguing rumination on lost innocence and childhood trauma, but it never materializes into anything substantial thanks to the contrived characters and one-dimensional observations.
As a horror movie, “Five Nights” sleepwalks through its tedious runtime. Tammi, who exuded craft and a deft understanding of horror machinations in 2019’s “The Wind,” is the latest indie darling director to see her sensibilities soullessly butchered by mainstream moviemaking. The film forgoes the grimy guck and creepy corridors synonymous with the games in favor of a contemporary sleekness that does a total disservice to the material. Every image lacks creative vigor; there are few instances where the camera work or visuals exceed the levels of a generic commercial.
I struggle even to call this a horror movie because there are no remotely scary moments. I understand “Freddy’s” is a brand for teenagers, but that did not stop the video game series from striking fear in players at every turn with impactful jump scares and unsettling images. Instead, the movie spends half of its runtime misguidedly transforming Freddy and his robot peers into cutesy creations in a shameless marketing ploy by the studio. Once the carnage ensues, the supposed “horror” moments are devoid of tension, style or any other noteworthy qualities.
The “Five Nights at Freddy’s” film shares an unintended kinship to its titular characters. These figures once brought joy to many but has sadly transformed into a deformed shell of its former glory days.