Josh Hutcherson is Traumatized anew in Clanky Horror game Adaptation
DIRECTED BY EMMA TAMMI/2023
If nothing else, the movie adaptation of the hit 2014 video game Five Nights at Freddy’s will be noteworthy as a mile marker in cinema’s journey- nay, descent- in cultural prominence. While popular movies of late (the superheroes, the fast, the furious, etc.) can be fairly criticized for their animatronic narrative and samey aesthetic tendencies, they still manage to exist a level up from the undeniable derivative nature of so many zeitgeisty video games. Director Emma Tammi’s Five Night’s at Freddy’s (a career outlier if ever there was one) actively seeks to bleed one into the other.
Yes, such attempts have been made over the years, some far more gonzo than this tepid offering. (The first-person favoring of 2015’s Hardcore Henry film comes to mind). With the flickering no-brainer that is Five Nights, however, the prior lesson learned seems to be, just show the things. And based on the extremely animated audience interaction during the early screening I attended, such a basic transition into live action is plenty to satisfy the game’s many, many fans. Time and again, when one of the iconic (for gamers) haunted characters appears (commonly motionless, dead-eyed, under a light fixture with a struggling ballast, and, vitally, accompanied by a sudden loud synthesized THUD!), it’s more than enough to electrify the target audience. (If, like me, you go in unfamiliar with the antagonistic animatronic pizza-place mascots Freddy, Bonnie, Chica, Foxy, and Mr. Cupcake, don’t expect any proper scares, period).
And then there’s YouTube. My own not-even-secondhand understanding of the Five Nights phenomenon is clear on at least one thing: trendy YouTubers are to thank not only for chatting up the game, but for spurring on its sprawling, crawling load o’ lore. In today’s pop culture where the repetitive work of rambling, over-caffeinated online hosts have effectively trumped good ol’ moviegoing in terms of viewer fascination and hours spent watching, a famous YouTuber is far more thrilling to see than, say, a former co-star of one of the previous decade’s biggest big-screen franchises.
Josh Hutcherson of The Hunger Games fame does an admirable job of carrying Five Nights at Freddy’s for its unnecessary nearly-two-hour run time. He plays Mike, a down-on-his-luck dude who’s barely up to the task of tending to his little sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). Abby’s one of these Creepy Important Kids that occupy movies like this, incessantly in her own head while drawing pictures, blurting out puzzling details, and interacting with things that the adults either deny or run from. But wouldn’tchaknowit, Abby is actually tuned into something. When she befriends the lethal lumbering Freddy Fazbear and his gang of malicious mechanical menaces, fans in the audience at our screening were quick to let the movie screen know the threatening folly of such a choice.
Even with all of that, Five Nights at Freddy’s is not a poorly made movie, per se. If anything, it’s thematically bitten off more than it can chew. For a movie that made the top-down decision to coast on the “There’s that thing I know!!” level of fan service, it spends a surprisingly inordinate amount of time on the cooked-up trauma of Mike’s life-defining failure: the kidnapping of his younger brother from right under his nose. Dangly threads about his pursuit of a theory wherein one can change the past through one’s dreams eat up a lot of time, and never do really coherently come together. The focused concentration of life-altering loss and stunting failure is shockingly heavy for what this movie ostensibly is: a PG-13 Saw movie about a guy stuck in a long-closed-down haunted Chuck E. Cheese.
So, we find ourselves at the uncomfortable crossroads of aging film critics (here, here) tasked with assessing a seminal work of the YouTube generation which we have limited to no pre-knowledge of, much less any nostalgic attachment to. (That Five Nights at Freddy’s seems to take place in the early to mid 1990s is a decision that feels more rooted in keeping smartphones out of character’s hands than a crass appeal to the likes of greying audience members). (That said, it is fun to see Matthew Lillard having fun in a horror movie again, and I guess good for Mary Stuart Masterson turning up to collect a paycheck). For those not as plugged in, Five Nights at Freddy’s is simply a too-long and rather boring attempt at elevating a panderous I.P. Thankfully it’s not so bad that it feels like it takes five nights to get through… but it might just help to sit with a theater full of ill-behaved chatterboxing fans who are all in on this peacocking attempt to divert them from their games and YouTubes with This Thing They Know. The fact that for such connoisseurs, Five Nights at Freddy’s doesn’t just work, it works like gangbusters can’t help but be indicative of a far scarier thing than knife-wielding servo-skeletons: the advent of cinema that no longer requires its own terms.