Five Nights at Freddy’s (Universal, PG-13)

Five Nights at Freddy’s was clearly not made for adults, but I really don’t even mean that as a criticism or insult. It’s meant purely for the kids, preteens, and early teenagers who love the series of light horror video games on which it’s based. Judging by the boisterous reaction of the franchise’s young fans who attended the same advance screening I did, it seems like all the fans are going to love this movie. This is the rare instance where I don’t even take any offense to talking during a screening, because I think this is basically just fairly harmless fun for kids who enjoy it, even with its moments of violence and dark subject matter.

For a fleeting few minutes in the film’s first act, I thought perhaps it might eventually have me cheering, too. Director Emma Tammi initially does a nice job of crafting a sort of downbeat character study. Josh Hutcherson plays Mike Schmidt, a twenty-something loner from a tragically broken family who’s trying to raise his little sister Abby (Piper Rubio) after their parents have left the picture for various reasons. Mike wobbles from job to job, his mood swings and overreactions costing him dearly every time. When he’s threatened with the prospect of losing Abby to his comically evil aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson), Mike takes the last job he thought he’d ever take, working nights as a security guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a worn-down, abandoned old relic of the great pinnacle of Chuck-E-Cheese-ery it once was.

Even through the second act, as we’re introduced to the pizza joint’s nightmarish animatronic animals and the mayhem they cause, the film still stays somewhat afloat for the uninitiated. As Mike continues to dream about the day his little brother went missing, bits and pieces of the lore surrounding his new employer start to invade his dreams, giving him hope of finding his brother’s abductor for the first time in his life. Even for as corny as some elements of this film can be due to the general corniness of its robotic villains, Mike’s story is kept nicely atmospheric, the dream sequences well-shot by director of photography Lyn Moncrief.

That atmosphere starts to fly out the window, however, as police officer Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail) becomes more involved. It’s not that Lail is bad in the part at all, it’s just that she has very little to do other than spout vague and confusing exposition. I challenge anyone who has not played any of these video games to tell me what the rules of this world are after seeing this film. The various pieces of lore which are brought to the forefront are never made to connect with each other in any meaningful or satisfying way for anyone unfamiliar with the series. Again, I can’t even bring myself to take much offense to this fact because this was obviously made specifically for kids who are well-versed in this lore. I just think there are actually enough interesting facets to this film that it could have been a greater artistic success if any care was taken to broaden its reach.

The third act simply takes a nosedive in terms of storytelling quality. It’s all so haphazard that what should feel like the most fun and climactic part of the film just feels stale and cold. Also, it has the most predictable twist you’ve ever seen if you’re even slightly knowledgeable about horror movies. Once you see a certain actor early on, you automatically know how he’s coming back at the end. It’s just another way this film wasn’t made for anyone other than the young fans of the games. That’s totally fine, but some of the film’s stronger elements — like its solid camerawork, decent humor, and Hutcherson’s committed performance — led me to believe this could have been a much deeper dish of a pizza, and not just a skimpy little reheated slice. | George Napper

Five Nights at Freddy’s is now in theaters and streaming on Peacock.

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