Let’s talk about this story. Video game creator Scott Cawthon’s Chuck E.-inspired 2014 phenomenon takes place in a decrepit Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzajoint, with the requisite ball pit, wonky electrical wiring and smell of death, with a whiff of sheet cake. Its threatening animatronic creatures — a bear, a bunny, a one-pawed fox, a face-eating robo-bird — run the place at night, and are inhabited by the disintegrating bodies and tortured souls of children who … well, spoiler there, a little late on the warning, sorry, moving on.
In the game, you take the role of night security guard Mike. You monitor the barely functional surveillance cameras and, once the robot killers come for you, you try to stay alive. There’s a labyrinth of backstory, dripped out in dribs and drabs, but Cawthon’s simple setup begot many sequels and a welter of spinoffs and subreddits and fan theories. Now it’s a movie.
And? It’s an odd one, indecisive about its tone and intentions. Full-on R-rated sadism? Half the gaming world is already mad about the movie not going in that direction. Instead, the filmmakers and screenwriters chose to squeak by with a PG-13, leaning away from five nights of steadily mounting carnage and body parts and toward a thick layer of earnest new material devoted to Mike’s horrific childhood depicted in frequent flashbacks and nightmares. These take him back, like a dream-state detective, to the Nebraska campground where Mike’s brother was abducted, never to be found.
Mike’s current life feels much the same as his dream state: stuck, bereft and looking for answers. He’s doing all he can to retain custody of his younger sister. And here we run into what the film industry has referred to for more than a century as “story problems.”
Cawthon and fellow screenwriters Seth Cuddeback and Emma Tammi (who also directed) take an earnest interest in developing the central brother-sister relationship. It works, sometimes. As Mike, Josh Hutcherson (”The Hunger Games”) draws you into a character’s sullen state of mind, persuasively, by doing very little. But there’s a ton of complication and clutter in “Five Nights at Freddy’s.”
The adaptation veers from scenes of Mike’s dream state, to the hapless crew of young thugs employed by Mike’s evil aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson, who deserves better) to discredit Mike, so she can gain custody of her niece (Piper Rubio). A kindly police officer (Elizabeth Lail) knows more about the Fazbear emporium of pain than she’s telling. And there’s the unsettling job counselor (Matthew Lillard) who sets up Mike as Fazbear’s newest night watchman.
From left, Bonnie, Freddy Fazbear and Chica in “Five Nights at Freddy’s.” (Patti Perret/Universal Pictures/TNS)
I don’t care much about neatness with most genre exercises, but this one’s pretty sludgy. I do care about, and resist, the film’s attempt to be a cuddly version of “Saw,” with faces getting sliced open by a robo-critter’s whirring saw blades. To keep the PG-13 rating intact, the camera and editor cut away just before the splurch, nearly every time. This means millions of 8-year-olds will likely be at the multiplexes this weekend, in a funk, alongside older kids and young adults steeped in nostalgia for the hours they spent at home being Mike. Current box office estimates suggest “Five Nights at Freddy’s” should make nearly double its $25 million production budget by Monday.
Cawthon has known great love and great hate online. Two years ago his political views and donations (he’s a Trump fan, in addition to being an anti-abortion Christian Republican) provoked some controversy and online blowback from former fans. In the movie, there’s a scene where Mike longs for the traditional God-fearing family taken away from him so cruelly. Hutcherson knows exactly how hard to stress this bit: just enough for it to register. The premise, meantime, of “Five Nights at Freddy’s” is entirely about the cruelty, and very likely would’ve made more sense as a straight-up R-rated splatterfest.
Then again, would I have liked a more gratuitous take on the same material? Reader, I cannot say. This one’s shorter than the “It” movies, at least. Once a child-abduction horror premise exceeds the 2-hour mark, the EXIT sign to the left of the screen starts looking better than the screen itself.
‘FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S’
2 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for strong violent content, bloody images, and language)
Running time: 1:50
How to watch: In theaters and streaming on Peacock Thursday
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