Thursday, October 26, 2023

Five Nights at Freddy’s, from Blumhouse and the Henson Creature Shop

Gen X fondly remembers video arcade pizzerias like Chuck E. Cheese (still in business) and Showbix Pizza (sadly not), so of course we now enjoy packaging our nostalgia in horror movies. Logically, it is not the pizza or the video games that will kill you. It is the animatronic rock & roll stage show animals. Based on Scott Cawthon’s popular horror survival video game (that predates the similarly themed Nic Cage movie), Emma Tammi’s Blumhouse-produced Five Nights at Freddy’s opens this Friday in theaters.

Poor Mike has trouble holding a job, because he has emotional and sleep-related issues. Currently, he is the sole support of his kid sister Abby, but their nasty Aunt Jane is filing motions to assume custody (presumably for the welfare support checks that would follow her). He needs a job, but unfortunately the only one his employment counselor, the very odd Steve Raglan, can hook him up with is the night watchman gig at the long-shuttered Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza family arcade. The position has high turnover, as viewers can tell from the prologue.

Rather negligently, Mike does not bother to google the property’s notorious history. It was popular in the 1980s, but a rash of child disappearances led to its closure. This information would have meant something to Mike, because he remains traumatized by the childhood kidnapping of their middle brother, Garrett, who was never recovered.

For years, Mike has revisited his abduction through directed-dreaming, hoping to finally notice a clue identifying the kidnapper. Weirdly, those dreams have become much more vivid when he sleeps in front of the monitors at Freddy Fazbear’s. There are also new children in the dream, who seem to know something. He has yet to notice the animatronic animals moving around on their own, but it is only a matter of time.

In case you were worried, the story of
Five Nights is considerably different from Willy’s Wonderland. Mike’s tragic backstory and obsession with Garrett’s abductor add very different and compelling dimensions. Cawthon (who was canceled and doxxed on Twitter for having the “wrong” politics) and co-screenwriters Tammi and Seth Cuddeback marry that underlying storyline with the animatronic madness surprisingly well.

John Hutcherson carries the directed-dreaming scenes quite well. In fact, the exhausted grief and everyman decency he brings as Mike gives the film a solid anchor. However, there is no doubt the real stars are the four life-sized lethal animatronics, designed by the Henson Shop: Freddie Fazbear; Bonnie, a deranged rabbit; Chica, a frighteningly gluttonous chicken; and Foxy, an eye-patch-sporting pirate fox. They are often accompanied by Mr. Cupcake, a killer birthday-special pastry, who shares a kinship with the sentinel-orb from

The puppetry and “suitmation” of Fazbear and his ominous-looking cronies are a fan-pleasing blast to behold. They are definitely creepy, but with the right thimble-full of campiness mixed in. Throughout it all, Tammi helms with a good deal of style. She has a good eye for atmosphere and she makes the most of the film’s incredible creature and set design.

Despite all the mayhem, which pushes the limits of PG-13, somehow
Five Nights will make the arcade game generation nostalgic to revisit a Chuck E. Cheese (apparently, they still have a few in the outer boroughs). It surpasses Willy’s Wonderland, if that means anything to you. Arguably, it is probably the best live-action film adapted from a video game since Werewolf Within (which was the best since Detention, from the great nation of Taiwan). Recommended for fans of the game, Blumhouse, and old school practical animatronics, Five Nights at Freddy’s releases tomorrow (10/27) nationwide (including the AMC Lincoln Square in New York) and simultaneously streams on Peacock.