Scary Movies: Five Nights at Freddy’s

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This one looked terrible to me in the previews, but my son really wanted to see it, so off to the movie theater we went. A movie based on a video game franchise isn’t exactly a recipe for quality. Moreover, this is a horror movie with a PG-13 rating that awkwardly tries to balance some level of family-friendliness with a really sadistic and mean-spirited premise.

Still, as it turns out, Five Nights at Freddy’s wasn’t quite as bad as I feared it would be–in particular, the main character, Mike, is sympathetic and likable–but man, it really wasn’t good. Have you ever noticed how if a good movie has an inconsistency or weakness, the tendency for a viewer is to explain it away or ignore it, but for a bad movie, the tendency is to nitpick? Well, I have some definite nitpicks about this one. But later for that.

Mike Schmidt is not, as you might expect, a former all-star third baseman for the Phillies, but rather a security guard who has trouble holding a job down. For instance, at his last gig as a mall guard, he beat up a man who he thought was kidnapping a girl, although the man turned out to be the girl’s father. Mike really needs a job, though, because he has to take care of his younger sister, Abby, who at, say, age nine is still barely verbal but communicates through the pictures she is endlessly coloring of her “friends.” (I don’t think what happened to their parents is ever really explained.) Also, Mike has trouble sleeping at night because his dreams always involve his younger brother, who was kidnapped on a family camping trip while Mike was supposed to be looking after him, and Mike could only watch as the kidnapper drove away with his brother in the back seat.

Finally, the county employment agent (or whatever he is, some sort of career counselor, I guess) offers Mike a job that’s so bad it just can’t seem to hold onto its employees for more than a few weeks. The job is as a security guard working the night shift at an abandoned theme restaurant, Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, that featured video games and animatronic singing animals during its heydey in the 1980s. Mike doesn’t want to take the job at first because he has to watch Abby at night. But he really has no choice, so after arranging babysitting, he starts the gig.

The restaurant is creepy and every once in a while there’s a power surge that causes the animatronic animals to start playing until Mike can flip the main power switch and turn them off. Still, the place is basically quiet, and Mike has time to take little naps. At the restaurant, his kidnapping dreams become even more intense than usual, and now include five kids who weren’t really there when it happened. He also meets cute local cop Vanessa, who fills in him in on the restaurant’s background: several children went missing there in the 1980s, which is why the place had to close down. Moreover, the previous night watchmen have simply disappeared. But so long was Mike doesn’t let anything disturb the place, Vanessa thinks everything will be fine.

Unfortunately, Mike’s aunt Jane is trying to get custody of Abby so she can get the monthly benefit check. Jane hires a gang to invade the restaurant and trash it, figuring that will cause Mike to lose his job and then she’ll be able to convince the court to put Abby in her care. When the gang gets to work after Mike leaves in the morning, the animatronic animals come to life and, led by boss animatronic Freddy Fazbear, murder the intruders, with each of the five animatronics carrying out its killing in its own special, themed way.

One of the murdered gang members was Abby’s babysitter, who Jane had sent in the first place to try to undermine Mike, but who had secretly fallen in love with him. When she doesn’t show up that night as usual to watch Abby, Mike is forced to bring Abby with him to the restaurant. She is instantly attracted to the animatronic animals, calling them her friends. When they get home in the morning, Mike notices that the friends Abby had been drawing all along in her pictures were the same five animals represented by the five animatronics.

Things get even weirder when Mike falls asleep the next night only to wake up and find Abby playing with the animatronic animals, who are no longer on stage doing their programmed performance, but walking around the restaurant freely. Officer Vanessa shows up to explain to Mike that the animatronics are possessed by the spirits of the children who went missing in the 1980s. But it’s okay, because they like playing with Abby.

But the next time Mike falls asleep, the kids in his dream approach him and tell him he can have his kidnapped brother back, but he has to give them Abby in return. Mike seems to accept but then backs out, angering the children. When he wakes up, he finds himself strapped to a chair with the animatronics present and ready to torture him with the whirring gears and other mechanical workings of a dismantled animatronic. Is there any way for Mike to escape and save his sister from joining the ghosts of the five children? Does Officer Vanessa know more than she’s letting on? Will the audience fall asleep before the endless backstory can be fully explained?

By the way, do you notice any similarities between this movie and the Nightmare on Elm Street films? I mean, there’s a sadistic killer named Freddy who can communicate with his victims in their dreams, but can also attack them in real life. And I don’t want to give too much away, but it turns out there’s also an elaborate backstory (so much more than what I’ve already explained) with a malevolent child-killer at its heart, who holds the child ghosts in the restaurant in perpetual bondage. Many scenes in Five Nights echo the Elm Street films as well, with long, shadowy basement corridors that seem to extend forever. Did Five Nights creator Scott Cawthorn want to make a video game based on the Elm Street films, but couldn’t get the rights? Or did he just lack the creativity to come up with his own ideas?

Five Nights at Freddy’s (2023)
Story/Plot/Characters— The main character, Mike Schmidt (played by Josh Hutcherson) is likable, and is presented as having a truly caring relationship with his kid sister, Abby. Plus, the lady cop Vanessa (played by Elizabeth Lail, is cute and warm. The casting and acting here is surprisingly good! But that’s about where it ends. This whole thing is brought down by its internal contradictions.

First, the script, while not terrible, is saddled with reconciling the warmth of the Mike-Abby-Vanessa relationships with the sadistic and over-elaborate backstory to Freddy Fazbear’s restaurant. It tries to have it both ways–genuine relationships but in a ridiculous, over-the-top movie about murderous animatronics. You can’t have it both ways! Either the sympathy with the characters feels unearned because the tone of the horror elements keeps intruding, or the horror is undermined by the need to service the relationship moments. Plus, the sub-plot with the conniving aunt comes across as farce, as if mailed in from another movie. All this leads to constant jarring shifts in tone.

Besides that, there’s the whole problem with the PG-13 rating. This plays as a movie with “kid-level” scares and gore. But the whole twisted backstory with child murders and torture and kidnappings is way beyond what I’d want anybody under the age of a teen-ager to be exposed to. Again, trying to have it both ways means you get neither. (1.5 points)
Special Effects— Definitely the best part of this movie. The animatronic animals are realistic and believable, the gore mostly off-screen but well-done insofar as we see it. (2 points)
Scariness— More interested in explaining its way-too-complicated backstory than actually scaring us, plus the PG-13 rating prevents it from really showing us the gore. I mean, you don’t have to have gore for a horror movie, but if that’s the direction you’re going in, you really need to go all the way. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— The abandoned 80s theme restaurant is sort of chilling, although way too reminscent of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. (.5 points)
Total=4.5 points (Okay)

Despite its similarities to the Nightmare on Elm Street films, in the end this movie reminds me of nothing so much as Gremlins, another Okay but not great horror movie that unsuccessfully tried to marry kid-friendliness with gory horror. Look, it’s possible to have kid-friendly horror–tricky, but possible. But it has to be a ghost story or possibly vampires or werewolves. The slasher genre is not the place to try this!

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