There are some not-so-quiet corners of the internet where the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise holds a vice-like grip of fandom. The excessively lore-heavy and intricate video game series from Scott Cawthon found stratospheric success with reaction videos and let’s plays from various YouTubers.

With over fifteen games (nine being major releases) since 2014 and a whopping twenty-eight books, guides, graphic novels, and companion notes, there’s always been a lucrative opportunity. And with all this media, only one thing is certain: a film.

But after re-writes, new studios, and new producers, it seems this juggernaut video game franchise wasn’t going to hit the big screen without suffering some compromise in quality. Five Nights at Freddy’s is far from the worst adaptation to make the infamous gaming-to-film leap, but lacks the nerve and grit to carry its unmistakable line for fans, and creates a product with plenty of loose bolts and spring traps. A film that, while surrounding itself in lore and mystery, forgets the structures of plot and pacing and seems unsure of how hard it wants to go for the creeping horror angle.

Five Nights at Freddy’s follows the more straight-forward, though still enticing, plot of the first game: a down-on-their-luck security guard takes up the night shift at the abandoned restaurant, only to be plagued by the threat of the animatronics with an axe to grind. Additionally, for this screenplay from Cawton, Seth Cuddleback and Emma Tammi, elements across the franchise (particularly the books) and newly created characters are brought in to pad the film’s world-building and failed attempt at presenting a capable story matching the enormity of the monstrous truth behind the deeds which led to the animatronics’ violent awakening.  

There’s a disappointing compromise on the fear element of Blumhouse’s film to ensure a wide appeal, evident by its PG-13 rating in the States. Anyone looking for a genuine horror will feel let down by the film’s lean into a softer sense of thriller rather than outright terror, or even the jump-scares which made the franchise so famous; the only acceptable time to complain about their lacking. When Emma Tammi’s direction shifts characters into the titular pizzeria the film builds dread and suspense, but too often we are pulled out of this or thrown into peculiar moments of levity, meaning the film lacks a necessary bite or viciousness to keep it engaging for non-fans.

Most things benefit from Matthew Lillard. And Five Nights at Freddy’s is no exception. Taking on the role of a career councillor with a bit more skin in the game than initially thought, Willard takes the film as seriously as they can while recognising the premise. While Josh Hutcherson, as the unfortunate security guard, does a decent job in fleshing out a character that has for many years been the ‘player’ role of the audience’s perspective. The real star is a surprise character in the form of Elizabeth Lail’s Vanessa – a police officer who has a keen interest in the pizzeria and an elaborate history within the fandom, delivering a credible performance, and the only character who seems to react to the threat and weight of the situation. But four characters steal the focus – and after nearly a decade, fans finally get to see their favourite Chicken, Rabbit, Fox, and Bear in action.

Created by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, the group constructed near-identical physical replicas of their gaming counterparts. From Foxy’s pirate hook offering brief moments of lacerating gore to Chica’s now infamous cupcake, the design for the animatronics is the film’s primary source of entertainment and detail, along with the design of the pizzeria itself – a successful blend of the rotting, yet oddly enticing. It’s just a shame they aren’t utilised well enough outside of some clever shots, transitions, and well-edited kills of minor characters. 

Already sailing past its budget, and with a legion of dedicated fans already deconstructing the film for clues, secrets, Easter eggs (of which there are many), and cameos, a sequel is more than anticipated, and in truth, welcomed. Let’s hope it makes it out of the pizza oven faster, with less cheese and padding and a more genuine attempt at atmosphere and horror.

in cinemas nationwide now