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“Five Nights at Freddy’s” wants to do for animatronic arcade characters what “It” did for clowns. That’s unlikely, as this latest transformation from game to screen yields a weird horror concoction, fleetingly clever in the early going before gumming up the gears down the home stretch.
Part of that has to do with the need to graft a more detailed plot onto the game as well as trying to deliver the requisite scares while still qualifying for a less-restrictive R rating. The Blumhouse production is still plenty dark, despite exhibiting more restraint when it comes to gore than much of the genre.
Game creator Scott Cawthon produced the film and shares script credit with director Emma Tammi and Seth Cuddeback, leaving the focus on a security guard, Mike (“The Hunger Games’” Josh Hutcherson), hired to work the late shift at a shuttered arcade/pizzeria, Freddy’s Fazbear Pizza, where the animatronic characters (think Chuck E. Cheese) were a big part of the attraction.
Fleshing that out, the movie begins by quickly indicating why Freddy’s might need a new employee, and why Mike desperately needs a new job. Caring for his young and troubled sister (Piper Rubio), he’s still nursing a deep emotional wound from having witnessed the unsolved abduction of his younger brother when he was just a kid, with technicolor nightmares as a reminder.
The prolific Blumhouse has already generated a substantial horror hit around a murderous robot in “M3GAN,” and the disarming design of the animatronic figures (courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) should tickle the same taste buds. The missing-kid plot, however, clumsily adds a very dark streak to the proceedings, and the film doesn’t lay enough groundwork to conjure much mystery before getting around to the revelations.
Hutcherson does an admirable job of anchoring the proceedings with minimal assistance, mostly from Rubio and Elizabeth Lail (“You”) as a local cop who takes a suspicious interest in what’s happening at this abandoned old locale.
Like “It,” “Five Nights” wants to milk horror out of something associated with the innocence of childhood, and on that level the quirkiness of the visuals and initial moments of wit likely provide enough of what audiences want to survive, commercially speaking. Even so, the net result is another slice of horror that at best feels a little half-baked.
“Five Nights at Freddy’s” premieres October 27 in US theaters and on Peacock. It’s rated PG-13.
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