By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Adaptions of popular video game stories have been increasingly common in Hollywood in recent years. Movies such as Super Mario Bros. exist as evidence that studios are looking to the video game industry for inspiration on their next film, despite a series of similar projects receiving negative reviews and a supposed “curse” on any movie based off of a video game.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is the latest video game to be turned into a feature film, and the question becomes whether or not it falls victim to the same sorts of mistakes and sloppy storytelling that have plagued such adaptations in the past. Does Blumhouse’s latest horror flick do what so many other game-to-movies haven’t been able to do and succeed, or does it fall once again into the cursed category?
The answer to that question is complicated, and perhaps in part dependent on the viewer’s interest in the deep and complex lore that the video game sets out, and the movie attempts to follow. Five Nights at Freddy’s follows a young man (played brilliantly by The Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson), who struggles to hold down a job as he is hired to guard an abandoned children’s arcade/restaurant, Freddy Fazbear’s, but quickly learns that everything is not as it seems. This comes as he attempts to keep custody of his younger sister and still searches for information on his lost brother, who was kidnapped when they were kids. From there, the creepy animatronics come to life and secrets are revealed that will surely please long time fans of the game series.
Josh Hutcherson plays Mike Schmidt, the man in question who unknowingly takes the job at the spooky abandoned Chuck E. Cheese-esque setting. One of the best aspects of the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie is the character work they do with Schmidt, as a surprisingly sizable amount of time is spent developing his personal arc of grieving his lost brother and then attempting to keep hold of, and connect with, his younger sister. It feels unique that a horror movie such as this would dedicate so much time to the main character’s journey, but it makes this film feel more personal and emotional than expected, which was an unexpected yet pleasant surprise.
That being said, the filmmakers don’t appear to get the balance right between the characters’ personal stories, the lore underlying Freddy’s, and the scares for audiences to face. The premise of the original game is simple: playing as a security guard, the gamer must keep tabs on a series of black and white television screens playing live security camera footage from the rest of the building, showing spooky events involving creepy animatronic characters. Unfortunately, the movie fails to capture the game’s fundamentally simple yet brilliant premise. This is in part due to the story simply moving in other directions and, in turn, strangely too much focus on plot and storytelling, but it ultimately means that the suspenseful, gripping nature of the original game is lost in this movie adaptation entirely. It’s a shame, too, as it feels as if focusing on a simpler premise more akin to the source material could have benefited the rest of the film as well, which becomes notably complex and convoluted as the movie goes on.
As Hutcherson’s hero begins to unravel the mystery of Freddy’s, and uncovers the reason behind the darkness at the location, the story becomes relatively bloated and messy, leading to a flat and predictable final act. A lot of this has to do with the filmmakers attempt to include some of the most important aspects of the game’s lore into this film, but these elements aren’t inserted with any degree of subtly or care, leading to a messy final product. Over the course of several games and books, the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise has cultivated a deep history and lore that explains the ins and outs of the happenings, but, in the film adaption, that lore appears to be haphazardly included in a way that is confusing for general audiences who are unfamiliar with the game and dissatisfying for long term fans of the series.
On a more positive note, particular praise must go to Matthew Lillard for his performance in this film. Lillard is at the heart of the history and lore presented to audiences in this film, for better or worse, but he makes the most of his relatively small amount of screen time with a memorable and impactful turn (and an awesome easter egg referencing his role in Scream). The actor, who is perhaps best known for his role as Shaggy in Scooby Doo, strikes the perfect balance with his performance that the rest of the movie attempts to have as well, but without the same sort of success. Lillard immediately gives off spooky, odd energy in his first meeting with Hutcherson, but, as this is a PG-13 horror story that is based on a game series popular amongst children and adolescents, the actor also incorporates some humorous quirks into his performance fitting for the film’s tone.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is the latest in a long line of film adaptations of popular video game series, and is certainly not the worst of these by any stretch. The commitment to character work shown throughout is genuinely surprising and adds unexpected emotional heft to the proceedings, but the balance is off as far too much time on convoluted plotting at the expense of the streamlined scares that could come from the “haunted” abandoned pizzeria and children’s play premise.