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Five Nights at Freddy’s ★★★★



Director: Emma Tammi

Cast: Josh Hutcherson, Matthew Lillard, Elizabeth Lail

Release: 25th October 2023

Hard on the heels of The Exorcist: Believer, The House that Blum Built is gracing the cinema screens again with the latest horror production – and it’s their best one this year. Five Nights at Freddy’s, a screen adaptation of the eponymous video game franchise, has been in development hell for almost a decade now as competitors rushed to beat it to the punch: the likes of Willy’s Wonderland and The Banana Splits Movie tried to capitalize on FNAF’s meme-friendly concept but opted for a decidedly tongue-in-cheek approach to animatronic mayhem. The Blumhouse rendition, however, faithfully recreates the lore-heavy background of the source material while choosing to focus more on the characters that were often restricted to FNAF-brandedbooks and online forums. As a result, this crowd-pleasing horror film feels more akin to a Stephen King-esque tale of decaying suburban America, starkly empathetic and delightfully spooky in equal measure.

At its core, the film functions as a loose adaptation of the first three games in the series while incorporating certain characters from the latest entry, Security Breach. Mike (Josh Hutcherson), a security guard with lingering childhood trauma, accepts a nightly security gig at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria (think Chuck E. Cheese, yet somehow even creepier). A popular place in the 80s, it is now a rundown family restaurant that is kept standing at the will of its sentimental, incredibly mysterious owner. Mike isn’t convinced by the less-than-ideal pay and even more frustrating working hours – but the looming custody battle over his younger sister, Abby (Piper Rubio), forces him to take the last-minute offer. Perhaps that was a mistake, as the neon-lit pizzeria from the Reagan era is home to vicious animatronics dying to play another game.

While Five Nights at Freddy’s may be easy to dismiss due to its kid-friendly reputation and omnipresent merchandise, this is more than just your average video game adaptation: Emma Tammi’s formally superb genre effort is a uniquely sensitive thrilling horror film that utilizes the FNAF framework to tell a truly compelling story of childhood pain, regret, and the catharsis of facing the demons of one’s past. The fundamental concept of “blood-thirsty animatronics unleashing havoc after dark” is still here. Still, the increased focus on those affected by the terrors and their intrinsically human struggles works so well in contrast with the absurdity of sentient animal-themed robots.

The standout here is Josh Hutscherson’s tender, deeply compassionate performance. What could’ve been yet another bubblegum trauma film is elevated by his take on the security guard’s troubled past: having witnessed his brother get abducted at a young age, Mike has become obsessed with reliving that moment in his vivid dreams. He believes he saw the perpetrator while camping in Nebraska with his parents, but his child’s psyche chose to repress those memories and shield him from the future of guilt and suffering. Every night, he goes to sleep listening to the sounds of the forest, staring at a poster hanging above his bed that helps him immerse himself in those traumatic memories. It’s a shockingly layered depiction of childhood trauma (especially in contrast with Blumhouse’s previous efforts à la Halloween) and heavily impacts Mike’s on-screen dynamic with his younger sister.

Strangely enough, the animatronics are also given a bit of a human touch, with the script making it clear that these nightmare-inducing creatures aren’t murderous machines. Brought to the screen by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, each of these characters has distinct personalities and motivations – even if the sight of an anthropomorphic bear robot making chair forts amid gory executions does make one question whether the film wishes to portray them as anything but playful misfits.

It would’ve been easy to make Five Nights at Freddy’s a trashy slasher-fest, but Emma Tammi’s take on the franchise is as far removed from the animatronic murder spree as possible. Instead, this gateway horror film puts affecting relationships at the forefront of its scares, gracefully balancing kindness with soberingly tangible terror. Fans of the series will surely enjoy pointing out the plethora of easter eggs and cameos. Yet, it’s the film’s earnest attempt at big-hearted, atmospheric horror that might win over newcomers.

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