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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Game On: ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ film proof that video game adaptations are diversifying

While “Five Nights at Freddy’s” has numerous human protagonists, the franchise’s murderous animatronic mascots steal the show.  (Universal Pictures)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

So much time had passed from the initial 2015 announcement of the film adaptation of Five Nights at Freddy’s that I was surprised to hear it was finally headed to screens this month. It was released Oct. 26 on the streaming service Peacock and hit theaters the following day.

Curiously, it is garnering highly negative reviews from critics and positive reviews from most general audiences. As of this writing, on RottenTomatoes the film holds a 28% Tomatometer from critics and an 89% audience score. Gaps between critical reception and audience response are not uncommon, but the gap with “Five Nights at Freddy’s” is surprisingly massive.

The film stars Josh Hutcherson as Mike Schmidt, a security guard haunted by the kidnapping of his younger brother that he failed to thwart. After losing his job, social services threaten to give custody of his younger sister Abby to their manipulative aunt Jane. With his options running out, Mike reluctantly accepts a job as a night guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a long-defunct family entertainment center akin to Chuck E. Cheese.

Due to the nature of the film, it’s difficult to go into further depth without spoiling pivotal moments, of which there are many. Despite being based on a game series whose most-loyal fanbase is middle schoolers, the script is reasonably mature, touching on themes of loss, poverty and the importance of family.

Although the murderous animatronic antagonists are iconic mascots and bound to steal the show, the acting was surprisingly good, with Hutcherson delivering a very grounded and believable performance, Piper Rubio turning in one of the best child-acted roles I’ve seen in years, and Matthew Lillard playing an appropriately unhinged character.

Horror is one of my least-favorite movie genres, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that “Five Nights at Freddy’s” had relatively few jumpscares, instead prioritizing elements of mystery and suspense.

This comes as a surprise, because the video game franchise became famous largely for its numerous jumpscare moments. The vast majority of fan-produced works online consist of streamers and content creators practically leaping out of their chairs at various points in the game series – of which over a dozen have been produced since the franchise’s inception in 2014.

Although some would consider it a risky endeavor to depart from the jumpscare-centric formula of the games, it might have been a wise decision. Five Nights at Freddy’s is also popular for its bizarre lore surrounding the animatronic antagonists, and the movie spent a solid portion of its runtime fleshing out the tragic origins of those characters.

Indie game developer and series’ creator Scott Cawthon is credited for screenplay, story and production duties, and it shows. While the film made some departures from the games, the changes felt calculated – as such, fans of the series are sure to enjoy the film. As of writing, its box office total is $132.7 million grossed against a $20 million budget.

While “Five Nights at Freddy’s” isn’t raking in mountains of cash, as a more niche franchise it shouldn’t be expected to make “Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s” $405.4 million or “The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s” $1.362 billion. The ongoing success of a horror flick based on an indie game originally developed almost entirely by one individual is testament to filmgoers’ openness to a diverse array of genres and experiences.

With average film costs ballooning in recent years, industry leaders might also take note of “Five Nights at Freddy’s” more modest and downscaled approach to filmmaking. Not every movie needs a $100 million-plus budget or an explosive CGI-heavy finale.

Video game-to-film adaptations have been recently experiencing a sort of renaissance after a series of flops two decades ago, and it’s nice to see them diversifying. While it’s easy to appreciate heavy-hitters like “Mario,” “Pokémon” and “Mortal Kombat” gracing the big screen, there’s no reason smaller franchises can’t also make their own little splash.

Dozens of video game adaptations are currently planned such as BioShock, Borderlands, Beyond Good & Evil, Metal Gear Solid and Streets of Rage. If the quality of “Five Nights at Freddy’s” is a sign of things to come, count me in.