The long-awaited Five Nights at Freddy’s film has finally been delivered, dividing critics and fans. On one side – a rabid fanbase, highly rating the movie and already clamoring for more. On the other side, the critics, who seem to dislike the movie generally and possibly aren’t all as into the franchise as the fans. I kind of have one foot in each camp.
Perennial YouTube fodder, the first Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNaF from now on) game appeared in 2014 and inexplicably immediately blew up. The premise was simple but new. You play as a night security guard for Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria, a children’s entertainment spot à la Chucky Cheese. Filled with a troupe of anthropomorphic animal animatronics, the restaurant is a family-friendly fun time during the day. Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie the Bunny, Chica the Chicken, and Foxy the Pirate are on hand to make any kid’s birthday magical and not at all terrifying.
Unfortunately, you aren’t the day security guard, and it’s significantly different at night. The jovial animatronics can roam free at night, the power to the building is less than adequate, and the clunky robots want to rip you apart—a fairly standard minimum-wage job.
Gameplay consists of point-and-click resource management, the scariest thing to someone with ADHD. You have to cycle between checking the security cameras, using the lights to check outside your office door, and keeping the doors closed if the animatronics are too close. Use too much power, and the room goes dark, resulting in a screeching animatronic exploding into view before the game is over. Miss an animatronic sneaking upon you, and the same thing happens.
The game takes place over five nights, and you are slowly drip-fed the unsavory background of the restaurant through “Phone Guy,” the previous guard who has left you phone messages to guide you through your great new job. Let’s try and do a speedy condensed lore dump before we get to the movie.
William Afton, creator of Fazbear Entertainment, is a child-murdering ghoul, and the souls of children are trapped within the animatronics. Well, all of the children are in the animatronics, as in their bodies, too. Patrons complained about smells, and yet, somehow, the bodies were never found. William Afton is commonly known in the franchise as Purple Guy due to him often being depicted as a purple humanoid figure. There is also a reference to an event known as The Bite of 87, where someone lost a frontal lobe, and the animatronics were limited in their daytime movements.
This is the bare minimum you need to know going into the new movie, as it is mainly focused on the first game, with a few other references chucked in. Honestly, this is where we get to my relationship with the franchise. When the first game appeared, I thought it was excellent. The mechanics and design of the antagonists were fresh; it was scary, and I was tense.
However, the more games that came out, the more it became a parody of itself and the more bogged down with insane and inane lore it became. It became bloated, overdone, and tiresome. The constant picking apart of every detail of every game, book, and comic was, at first, a fun little treasure hunt. Still, after ten years, it became a grating exploration and wild speculation on every pixel and every word. Of course, that’s my personal view of where I have been with FNaF for awhile now. The general fanbase loves to speculate on and accumulate lore snippets, whether there’s a foundation for it or not, and that’s fine! As with everything, enjoy what you enjoy and ignore what you don’t.
Because of this, I wasn’t very excited at the prospect of the movie finally coming out. It had been in development hell since 2015, which is rarely a great sign. For example, look at the current shenanigans surrounding the Blade reboot for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was meant to come out in 2022 but has yet to shoot or even get a script together. These delays just don’t generally bode well.
However, my feelings started to change as more news emerged surrounding the film. Blumhouse was producing it, a studio well versed in horror whose best films are some of the best new horror of the last 20 years, although their worst films swing wildly the other way. Then, the cast announcements began. Josh Hutcherson would be playing the security guard, Mike Schmidt. I love Josh Hutcherson. He was my favorite thing in The Hunger Games, and he is in a bizarre film called Detention that involves a time-traveling stuffed bear. Already, the links were appearing.
Then Matthew Lillard was cast. Matthew Lillard is one of my favorite actors. He has been in many formative films for me. Hackers, SLC Punk!, Thirteen Ghosts, Serial Mom, and, of course, Scream are all in my top 20 films. Do not question my love of Thirteen Ghosts. Thus, I was in for the FNaF film regardless of any other factors. Then, on top of the cast announcements, it was revealed that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would be creating the animatronics. You simply can’t do better than that for creating creatures; it’s in the name!
The movie follows the plot of the first game while adapting it from the active participation of the video games to the passive experience of movie watching. Mike Schmidt is a recently fired security guard who is plagued by anger issues, a string of failed employment, and the memory of his abducted younger brother. As a child, Mike witnessed the abduction of his younger brother Garrett and now spends every night returning to the moment in dreams in the hope that he will remember something about the person who took him.
Meanwhile, Mike is also the guardian of his younger sister, Abby (Piper Rubio), who is not very forthcoming and spends all her waking moments drawing pictures. After incorrectly beating the crap out of a man he believed to be abducting a child at his security job at the mall, Mike finds himself once again jobless. With the threat of a custody battle for Abby with his evil Aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson) looming, Mike needs a job. Fast. Luckily for him, the kindly but a bit weird unemployment office worker Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard) has the perfect security gig for him. Guess where.
In the FNaFCU, the restaurant has long been abandoned and has some electrical issues, meaning the breaker needs to be reset now and again. Now faced with strange children invading his dreams when he sleeps on the job, a new friend in the shape of police officer Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), and some animatronics who seem interested in his sister, Mike has to learn to let go of the past and hold on to his present.
The film itself is much more character-driven than the initial game. Later games incorporated more character work and stories as the lore grew into an uncontrollable blob monster of occasional nonsense. Still, the initial game had no information about the security guard besides the name Mike Schmidt. When you’re watching a movie, however, you can’t just have Jumpscare: The Movie. Well, you can, but it would be rubbish.
You need to root for your protagonist. In the game, you are the protagonist. It’s first person, and you are actively participating. That isn’t the case with a film. In that regard, the movie succeeds because Hutcherson makes Mike extraordinarily likable and sympathetic. Piper Rubio, as Abby, gives a brilliant portrayal of an insulated little girl who struggles to communicate with the world around her until she meets her new animatronic “friends.”
The animatronics are mostly more menacing than actively attacking people in the movie. There are a few scenes where things get grisly, including someone getting cut in half, which I wasn’t expecting. Apart from that, though, it’s more about the menacing presence, horrible background, and sinister intent of the animatronics. There’s also the case of how the children became the animatronics. Who could possibly be responsible for this horrific act? Well, SPOILER, it’s good old Steve Raglan from the unemployment office, who is actually William Afton and has orchestrated this whole thing. Afton dons the Springtrap suit in the film, which is a yellow rabbit that has old spring-style locks in the suit. Springtrap appears in later games, but having Afton appear in the film in his suit is an excellent way to set up further entries in the series, as in the games, he is a constant malevolent presence.
Is FNaF an experience of absolute terror? No. It is a great gateway horror film for a younger audience that has captured the essence of the source material. It isn’t a movie made for critics. This movie is for the fans. It isn’t aimed at those who haven’t spent the last decade burying themselves in the franchise’s extensive and seemingly never-ending lore. It’s a deep well of story, inferred plot points, and mythology that spans across multiple media. The audience already knows the story. Trust me, they definitely do. They just want to see it brought to life on film, and that’s what Blumhouse and director Emma Tammi have done. It’s a fun movie, and I think It’s often forgotten that not everything has to be an artistic masterpiece. Movies are about fun and escapism. It’s okay just to shut off and enjoy the show.