Review: In 'Five Nights at Freddy's,' a moldering pizza parlor hides after-dark secrets

Hostile animatronics are on the loose in the surprisingly gory kids flick "Five Nights at Freddy's," about a sinister pizza joint whose anthropomorphic mascots become sentient after hours. It's an uneven scarefest, but the bloodthirst is at least refreshing; these days most PG-13 horror movies don't trust younger viewers to handle more than a little over-the-top terror.

Not so with "FNAF," which gets off to a gnarly start as a panicked security guard tries, and fails, to flee the mechanical stalker planning to give him a face-lift in the dead of night. The squishy sounds that ensue are vivid enough that your imagination fills in his fate, and just like that, today's junior genre hounds have a new gateway film into horror.

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That tense prologue also explains why there’s a sudden opening on the overnight shift at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria, the super-creepy, long-empty — well, mostly — abandoned '80s relic where Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson) takes a job watching the place between midnight and 6 a.m. Distracted by his younger brother's unsolved disappearance years ago, Mike struggles to stay employed and needs the steady work after his icy aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) threatens to steal guardianship of his little sister Abby (a preternaturally endearing Piper Rubio).

His ensuing workweek from hell, and the personal demons that keep him clocking back in each night when most reasonable people would quit and speed dial the OSHA hotline, set up director-co-writer Emma Tammi's big screen adaptation of the popular point-and-click video game franchise (count 'em: nine games, spinoffs, novels and comics) created in 2014 by Scott Cawthon.

That's where the fun more or less begins, as Mike spends his hours watching fuzzy surveillance feeds and dozing off into the recurring dream that haunts him. Hutcherson is compelling as a man trying desperately to cling to his last spark of hope, replaying the day his baby brother was kidnapped to search his own subconscious for clues. Does he really need the added headache of the creepy robots of Freddy's not only walking around at night, but befriending his friendship-starved 10-year-old sister?

Their names are Freddy, Chica, Bonnie and Foxy, cartoonish creations taken straight from the games and designed into towering animatronic puppets and wearable suits by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. (Picture the lip-syncing Rock-afire Explosion band from ShowBiz Pizzas of yesteryear, transformed into a mechanophobe's waking nightmare.) Sporting layers of dirt and grime and rudimentary grimaces that have one mode — sinister — these practically realized demented Barneys are all the more amusing for how little they can emote and instead simply lurch about or stare, stalking backrooms and dingy hallways like Michael Myers.

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Tammi, who made her directorial debut with the effectively chilling 2019 indie supernatural western "The Wind" and helmed installments of Hulu's anthology "Into the Dark," levels up with confidence, creating a world within Freddy's walls that feels soul-curdled but never unwelcoming to the sensitive Abby. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief's camera creeps with a watchful presence, finding dynamic compositions that keep the film's mostly single location setting interesting and foreboding, while a pulsing score by the Newton Brothers and lived-in production design by Marc Fisichella evoke nostalgia so sensory you can almost smell the dank carpets underneath the neon lights and dusty arcade machines.

Plus, the horror elements have actual life-or-death stakes; for a while that makes the silliness of the film's amuse-bouche jolts and set pieces diverting enough. But then into the mix comes Mike's patronizing career counselor (Matthew Lillard), a winsome local cop (Elizabeth Lail) who offers helpful exposition (Would you like to know about the tragedy that shut down Freddy's decades earlier? How about design flaws of those animatronic exoskeletons?) and a motley crew of vandals bent on sabotage.

If only the film took different cues from the original game, which had a fairly simple premise: You're a guard at a haunted Chuck E. Cheese analogue with only basic tools and a dwindling power source as a gang of deadly animatronics stalk the place. The thrills are the in-world details and the exhilaration of survival, many references to which make their way into onscreen Easter Eggs for fans of the game. "FNAF"' instead spins out of control as it attempts the fool's errand that has befallen many a video game movie: shoehorning a weird and immersive experience into the bones of Hollywood narrative convention.

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Hailing from the Blumhouse Productions-Universal Pictures union that gave us "M3GAN" earlier this year, "FNAF" puts far more blood and budgetary resources onscreen but can't rouse the same camp energy of that instant cult hit. To its credit, the screenplay by Tammi, Cawthon and Seth Cuddeback (from a story by Cawthon and "Tragedy Girls" duo Chris Lee Hill and Tyler MacIntyre) doesn't shy away from such grim terrain as child kidnapping, child murder, maiming, stabbing and other assorted morbid sights.

But it also leans too hard into traumasploitation to justify its convoluted story, as well as its 1 hour, 50 minute runtime. (Did I mention the quintet of child ghosts that join the party?) By the time the final secrets of its grim mystery are revealed, even the scares have lost both edge and inspiration, less concerned with animatronic monsters than the human ones among us.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.