After nearly a decade in development hell, and a laundry list of “attached” directors, the Five Night at Freddy’s theatrical adaptation is finally hitting the big and small screen just in time for spooky season. Given most of its audiences who first discovered the game have since grown up in the time it’s taken to produce the film, the film is not only taking advantage of the nostalgia those original fans have, but it’s also looking to catch those that are still just discovering this property. I fell down the rabbit hole of FNAF, as the fans call it, around the release of the second game back in 2014. This was after seeing the creepy animatronics on the merch that made me wonder, ‘how scary could this kid’s survival horror game in fact be?’ The answer was pretty damn scary to be honest, and while those jump scares lured me in, what kept me coming back was the rather bleak and engrossing lore game creator Scott Cawthon had woven into the game involving missing children and a child predator who was never caught.
The film itself is a rather faithful adaptation to the first game’s story and follows Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson) who in order to keep custody of his younger autistic sister Abby (Piper Rubio) takes a job at the now defunct Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza (Think a creepier Chuck E Cheese) as a nighttime security guard. While he thinks he’s keeping the riff raff out of the derelict property, he soon discovers he’s keeping the creepy animatronics that come alive at night in. Abby, who is a completely new character to this universe, works to not only infuse the film with some real stakes, but it also gives the story a much needed heart. This is because Mike is understandably a rather scary, paranoid mess. He’s got a good heart, but he’s suffering from severe PTSD after witnessing the abduction of his younger brother and the resulting erratic behavior is only amplified by the fact that he’s hunted at night by a giant animatronic bunny .
Thematically the film tackles the loss of innocence through its narrative threads and the sometimes terrifying consequences on the psyche. To be honest almost all the adults in FNAF are damaged in some way or another. We’re introduced to Mike through his recurring nightmare of witnessing the abduction of his younger brother when he was still a child, and we then witness how that event destroyed not only his life but his family as well. While watching over Fazbear’s Pizza he meets Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail) a cop, who knows way too much about Freddy and has her own daddy issues to contend with. It’s an interesting dynamic already that is compounded by Abby, the young outsider who feels strangely at home with these homicidal animatronics. Through her eyes, we’re able to see Freddy and company as something more than a threat, since she has yet to lose that childlike innocence the animatronics covet.
Given Cawthon is a writer on the project, it’s definitely as canon as you can get and I think that fact might have been one of the reasons behind the revolving door of directors that eventually landed on Emma Tammi. She’s only got a handful of credits to her name currently and in my mind cracked the approach at dealing out the scares, while keeping the film kid friendly given this is a property aimed at tweens. That time in development also allowed the project to migrate from Warner to Blumhouse, another great fit, and for the Jim Henson company to come on board for the film’s animatronic characters. The practicality of Freddy and company allow them not only to feel much more organic on screen, but allow Abby to have small yet noticeable interactions with Freddy, Chica, Bonnie, Foxy and Cupcake that are full of the kind joy and wonder that can’t be faked.
As a fan of the games, this film scratched the itch of a live action adaptation and delivered something much more nuanced and emotionally complex than what I would have expected. Hutcherson’s take here, of someone just trying to get by while struggling with his trauma and raising his kid sister, really caught me off guard with how real he played it and how it managed to ground the world of the film. It shows there’s very consequences here, while perfectly illustrating how when innocence is stripped from someone at so young an age it forever leaves them looking to recapture that, whether it be a human or homicidal animatronic bear. What director Emma Tammi understood was fans of this property don’t just want the scares, but the lore as well, which invests you in these weird characters and their fates and brings us back again and again.