Major spoilers ahead for Five Nights at Freddy’s. You’ve been warned.
Once upon a time in 2014, my kid (along with a million others) became obsessed with a low-budget, horror video game called Five Nights at Freddy’s. Full of excitement, they showed me how it worked, how you play as a security guard and have to defend yourself against a crew of animatronic animals that come alive at night and stalks you. The only things you can do to defend yourself are to keep an eye on the staticky security monitors and manage the electricity.
It was rough-looking and so simple, and yet effective and most importantly, scary. The game’s popularity quickly grew into a merchandising monster of its own, spawning toys, t-shirts, books and of course, more games. Hollywood latched on too, but in typical fashion, it’s taken nine years for the movie to finally come out. In that time, FNAF’s lore and backstory have only continued to expand.
The new flick chooses to concentrate on Mike the unlucky security guard, played here by The Hunger Games’ (2012) Josh Hutcherson. But before we get to him, we start with his unnamed predecessor. He’s in a panic, undoing the screws to an air vent, trying to escape from something we can’t see. But it’s no use, as he’s quickly captured and strapped to a chair. A scary mask with gears (that looks more like a Saw (2004) trap than a mask) gets lowered onto his face. Yikes.
Then we meet Mike, a mall security guard who’s clearly not loving life. He spots a guy roughly grabbing a child and carrying them off. Thinking it’s a kidnapping, Mike chases the guy, tackles him into a fountain and beats the cr*p out of him. Which would be awesome, except that the guy’s actually the kid’s dad. Whoops.
Not surprisingly, Mike gets fired. He goes to a career counselor named Steve (Scream’s (1996) Matthew Lillard), who tells him about the easy security job at Freddy’s. All Mike has to do is make sure no one breaks in. But Mike says he can’t work nights because he has to take care of his much younger sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). So Steve gives Mike his card, in case he changes his mind.
When Mike gets home, he finds more great news in the form of an eviction notice. Mike chats with the babysitter, Max (Kat Conner Sterling), and checks in on Abby. She’s drawing, which is what she spends most of her time doing. The flick doesn’t make it clear whether she goes to school or not, but what is clear is that Mike is pretty much a single dad.
When he goes to sleep, he listens to a tape of nature sounds and stares at a poster of a Nebraska pine forest that’s taped to the ceiling. Mike dreams of being in that forest camping with his parents (Jessica Blackmore, Garrett Hines) and younger brother, Garrett (Lucas Grant). Turns out it’s a memory – his mom tells him to keep an eye on Garrett, but Mike loses track of him. When he does find him, Garrett’s in the back of somebody’s car being driven away, never to be seen again.
In addition to being poor and jobless, Mike also has to deal with Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson), his and Abby’s aunt. She’s looking to get custody of Abby – not because she cares about her, but because she wants the government money she’d get as her guardian. The social worker (Tadasay Young) still thinks Mike is the best guardian for her since Abby’s many drawings feature Mike as the center of her world. But he needs to get a job, like now.
So big surprise, he calls Steve and takes the job at Freddy’s. That night, he gets acquainted with the abandoned funtime palace, watching an old VHS training video featuring a cheesy, gung-ho employee telling him what an important job he has. Yay. Soon after, Mike falls asleep and has the dream/memory again. But this time there’s a group of kids there with him, watching Garrett get kidnapped. When Mike asks them who they are, they run away.
Meanwhile, Aunt Jane and her lawyer meet up with Max and her brother, Jeff (David Lind). Turns out that Jane has hired Max to get something incriminating on Mike. But Max tells her there’s nothing to find. So Jeff suggests that they can get Mike fired from the new job by ransacking Freddy’s.
When Mike goes to work that night, he takes his Nebraska poster and nature sounds tape with him and takes a sleeping pill. In the dream, he sees the strange kids again. He manages to catch one of them (Asher Colton Spence). But when Mike asks who he is, the kid just slashes his arm with a pirate hook and runs off. What’s really weird is that when Mike wakes up, he has the cut on his arm for real.
A local cop named Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail) shows up then. She has come by to say hi to the new hire, since Freddy’s is on her beat. She helps Mike patch up his arm and regales him with the history of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria, how it was shut down after some kids went missing back in the 80s. She also adds that none of the security guards last very long.
They go to the main area and Vanessa turns on the power to show him the animatronics: there’s Freddy Fazbear (Kevin Foster) of course, a blue rabbit named Bonnie (Jade Kindar-Martin), a fox with an eyepatch and a hook on one arm named Foxy, a yellow chick named Chica (Jessica Weiss) and Mr. Cupcake. Yeah, it’s a talking cupcake. The animal characters are huge, hulking and instantly creepy, as they stand on a stage and “sing.”
After the sun comes up and Mike and Vanessa are gone, Max and Jeff arrive at Freddy’s along with some cohorts (Christian Stokes, Joseph Poliquin). Jeff and the other guys tear the place up while a guilt-ridden Max waits outside. The arrival of the mean-spirited adults awakens the animatronics, and they attack – Chica and Mr. Cupcake take care of one, Bonnie takes care of another, and Jeff gets taken out by Foxy.
Max heads inside after the guys don’t come back. She spots a child running around and follows them. She hears their voice coming from inside Freddy and moves closer in – too close. Freddy chops her in half in what’s certainly the most extreme death in the whole flick.
Later, Vanessa stops by Mike’s place and lets him know about the break-in. She meets Abby, who instantly likes her. But Vanessa’s there to scold Mike, not only for leaving the doors unlocked but for using sleeping pills, which she found in the office.
Mike confides that he can’t forgive himself for what happened to Garrett. He takes the pills so that he’ll sleep soundly enough to have the dream/memory. That’s also why he uses the Nebraska poster and the nature sounds tape. But he says that the dream has become different and more vivid since he started the job. In a shocking change of attitude, Vanessa warns him that if he falls asleep on the job again, she’ll shoot him.
Unable to get a hold of Max, Mike has to take Abby with him to Freddy’s that night. They make a “fort” for her to sleep in while Mike cleans up the mess from the break-in. Of course, the dead bodies are mysteriously nowhere to be found. Mike then disregards Vanessa’s warning and goes to sleep again.
This time in the dream, Mike finds out that the kids are the ones who went missing. He asks who took them, and they point to a picture of a rabbit they drew in the dirt. Then screams awaken Mike, and he finds that Abby’s not in the fort. He runs out to the main area and finds her with the animatronics – tickling her. She introduces them and tells a weirded-out Mike that they’re her new friends.
When Mike and Abby return to Freddy’s the next night, Vanessa’s already there. She knows all about the animatronics, and she’s angry at Mike for bringing Abby there. She takes Mike to one of the back rooms where some of the extra suits are stored. She shows him how they work – the outer animal costume attaches to an electronic skeleton with a series of spring locks. If a person were unlucky enough to be in a suit, the spring locks would kill them. She warns Mike to keep Abby away from Freddy’s and to stop looking for answers about his brother.
But Mike’s committed now, knowing he’s close to finding out who really took Garrett. So the next night, he actually calls Jane and has her look after Abby – which Abby’s not at all happy about. Jane warns him that she’s not doing it out of the goodness of her heart and that they’ll have a serious chat when he comes home.
Mike goes to Freddy’s and sleeps. This time in the dream one of the kids, a blonde boy (Grant Feely), tells Mike that he and the others were all taken by the same guy who took Garrett. He also reveals that they’re the spirits possessing the animatronics. The boy shows Mike a different version of his dream, one where Garrett’s fine and everyone’s happy. The blonde boy offers to make the dream permanent. All he wants in return – is Abby.
It’s the alternate reality that Mike longs for. Desperate for relief from his guilt, Mike agrees. But then he quickly realizes what a mistake it is and changes his mind. Blonde Boy and the rest of the kids get angry and attack him. And when Mike wakes up, Foxy knocks him out.
Meanwhile and impossibly, somehow another version of Freddy (named Golden Freddy) shows up at Mike’s, dispatches Aunt Jane and takes Abby. They get in a taxi (driven by YouTuber Cory Williams, a fan favorite) and head over to the pizzeria.
Mike wakes up to find himself tied up, about to be killed by one of the spring lock suits. But Vanessa shows up and rescues him, taking him to one of the warehouses owned by the pizzeria’s owner, William Afton. Vanessa says Afton was the guy who kidnapped and killed the kids – including Garrett. Afton put the kids’ bodies into the animatronic suits, and when Afton realized that their spirits were possessing the animatronics, he tricked the kids into submission by convincing them that he was their father.
Mike asks her to help him save Abby, but she says she can’t. All she can do is show him how to break back into Freddy’s and give him weapons that he can use to disable the animatronics – a cattle prod and a taser. He sneaks back into the pizzeria and sees Chica leading Abby to a back room.
Freddy and Bonnie attack, but Mike stuns them with the taser. Then he rescues Abby from getting killed by one of the spring lock suits. But before they can escape, the yellow rabbit appears and attacks Mike. Foxy chases after Abby, almost nabbing her, but Vanessa saves the day and tases Foxy. Vanessa then calls out to the yellow rabbit, calling him “Dad.” Yes, the yellow rabbit is none other than Steve the career counselor – also known as the infamous William Afton. Dun-dun-DUN!
Vanessa pleads with Afton to stop, but he coldly stabs his own daughter in the gut instead. Yow. Now the only chance Mike and Abby have is for Abby to remind the kids who Afton really is. She draws them a picture of the yellow rabbit killing them. The animatronics turn on Afton, enabling the spring locks inside the rabbit suit. Then Freddy and the gang drag him away to the back rooms, as Mike and Abby carry Vanessa outside.
Cut to sometime later, as Mike drives to the hospital to visit Vanessa, who’s in a coma. He thanks her for saving them and tells her to wake up because he and Abby miss her. Back at home, Abby says she misses her friends from Freddy’s and worries that the kids are all alone now. She asks to go back and visit, and Mike says – maybe.
Late as it is in coming, Five Nights at Freddy’s is about two things: fan service and at the same time, making itself accessible to those who aren’t familiar with the property at all. The writers, including director Emma Tammi and FNAF creator Scott Cawthon, had a monumental task in taking all that convoluted backstory and lore and compressing it down to less than two hours.
The flick spends most of the screen time on Mike and Abby (who doesn’t exist in the lore). And while that makes some sense, and while it was nice to see the underrated Josh Hutcherson in a lead role where he could shine, unfortunately, it didn’t quite work. Somehow all of Mike’s trauma feels unnecessary, especially the idea that his story is tied in with the whole William Afton thing.
But from what I understand, that is part of the lore – which only makes me wonder why it exists there, why it has to be that way at all. Same goes for Vanessa, who only exists to provide info dumps and convenient rescues, a waste of Elizabeth Lail’s talent. And the fact that she’s Afton’s daughter also seems slapped-on and unnecessary.
As for the horror in this horror story, it’s decidedly lacking. We don’t see nearly enough of the namesake animatronics (beautifully made by Jim Henson’s studio), which is what we’re really there to see, after all. And the decision to go PG-13, while understandable in wanting to make the flick accessible to younger fans – ended up working against the story. There’s no well-crafted terror that gets under your skin without a lot of violence and gore. Something that flicks like Insidious (2010) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) managed to do superbly, and which FNAF should’ve taken cues from.
So in trying to make Five Nights at Freddy’s appealing to everyone, the flick ends up spreading itself too thin to make it something truly memorable. That said, when I was in the theater, all I heard was the sound of fans having a blast. They squee-ed at every familiar image, every surprise cameo and cheered loudly at the end. No doubt there’ll be a lot of repeat viewings – and given the box office returns so far, FNAF isn’t going away anytime soon. Let’s just hope that if (more like when) they make another flick, they’ll take it back to basics and remember what Five Nights at Freddy’s is at its core – a scary story.
Directed by: Emma Tammi
Written by: Scott Cawthon, Seth Cuddeback, Emma Tammi
Release date: Oct. 27, 2023
Run time: 1 hr, 49 min
Distributor: Universal Pictures/Blumhouse