Earlier this month, I interviewed Nolan Bushnell, founder of Chuck E. Cheese. I asked what it felt like to have created a franchise of entertainment centers that still have such a resounding cultural footprint. He said, well, he doesn’t think that much about the projects from his past. They are done, he has been there before and doesn’t worry as much about the derivative input of other creators, unlike his prior level of concern when there were imitations for all the games from the other company he founded, Atari.
Scott Cawthon created the Five Nights at Freddy’s video games. First, Scott made some allegorical Christian games. Famously, games critic Jim Sterling remarked that some of Scott’s creatures were creepy and reminded him of animatronic figures, which became the impetus for the Five Nights at Freddy’s games. It’s an easier picture to paint but this was not a shift from sunny games about religion to depraved puppet murder simulators, as Scott was already making ugly games (both thematically and artistically) with pro-life messaging and about the bible. Maybe you’d rather have the kids play Five Nights at Freddy’s after all.
We’ve lived with Five Nights at Freddy’s for a long time now. Scott has retired from making games. We do not need to admire the person, a Trumper and supporter of politicians with hate-driven politics, to see why his games have reached a market. The games do not so much belong to him as they do to children, now, and so too does the movie belong to a new generation and not the author of these stories and this screenplay.
The new film, already a mega-successful horror enterprise guaranteed to launch a whole line of sequels, can best be understood as formative, entry-level horror filmmaking. Directed by Emma Tammi, there is the possibility that she would find a new heart in the old material and evoke something that the games do not. As a point of confusion, this “horror for kids” model is primarily used as a vehicle for processing and understanding trauma not because that suits the story at all but because that’s what other movies are doing right now.
If you have not played the Five Nights at Freddy’s games or watched them on YouTube (this is their primary audience and point of interaction, already embedded in watching), then they go like this: someone accepts a job to stay overnight at an entertainment center and the animatronic figures slowly make their way down the hallways and try to kill them before the player runs out of power by surveying them through cameras, using doors, and lights, or until the player ends their shifts. Rinse and repeat for five nights with varying stipulations and escalations in creature behavior, and you have a game with some random elements, but also one that is spent in waiting and watching, wherein anticipation is the delivery method of the horror itself.
That’s actually a perfect launching point for an entry-level horror movie. It’s not that deep of a game, it’s not burdened by mechanics beyond a camera and some switches, and all of its thematic resonance is found in anticipation and atmosphere. The less you do the better. And it worked! Despite launching simultaneously on Peacock the massive installed audience has shown up in droves to the theater in support of Freddy Fazbear and friends. The reality that it worked is more fun than the other realities, like how it took eight years to develop the movie, how little happens in it, or that it might spawn its own brand of Freddy’s-like horror that will leave older generations who grew up with some of the most wonderful eras of horror movies scratching their heads until the commercial monster of this franchise finally consumes them and eats their soul, too. RAAR!
So, this was the best possible investment for the team at Blumhouse-Universal. Good for them, because it was not their best month. They had just spent $400 million on the rights to The Exorcist, a horror franchise with two great movies and a bunch of duds, and summarily produced one of its biggest-ever duds with David Gordon Green’s The Exorcist: Believer. That franchise and the movies that will come out in it do not belong to the late Friedkin anymore. If they had, it would be a great offense. But it’s just another tired-out franchise that the kids do not feel any ownership of themselves. They haven’t been alive for a single good film about The Exorcist. They have been around for nine whole Five Nights at Freddy’s games. That’s a lot of nights at Freddy’s and a lot of spooky animatronics.
If the kids have watched nine Five Nights at Freddy’s games that belong to their culture and have watched two great The Exorcist movies that belong to their parent’s culture, then perhaps that begins to paint the picture. Neither new entry is very good at all but we might begin to understand what is happening and who gets to decide the future of the horror movie market. It is not what you want but it is not yours to want anymore, they have already done the thing you like, and it doesn’t belong to you or the creator of the games or anyone but the audience when it is out.
Is there any upside for us cynical and jaded students of old horror that seemed to work more fluidly as drama and not simple trauma unpackaging with a few funny animatronics? The animatronics are the best news. That the next big thing utilizes practical effects so fully, with an understanding of how Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza and how the game creatures operate, that opens a door to the possibilities of a better movie using the right (practical) tools. Good design goes a long way with convincingly replicating something like these animatronics and the movie does a good job at that! There is also the matter of Matthew Lillard’s great cameo which doesn’t need to be spoiled but creates a generational bridge with something for the young parents and teens in the audience to appreciate. He gives the one worthy performance in the movie. Everyone else is bad.
Nothing else goes well. The story is unmoving. You can not bleed emotion from a rock. There are whole gaps of time where either nothing is happening or you wish that even less was happening. The storyline and trauma are so corny, that all of the movie’s sadness is used as a simple device to bring kids into this world. You don’t need much in a video game if playing it works but in a movie, if you’re not going to try anything else, a convincing narrative structure that says something would be validating. It does seem to say a couple of things and those things are religious takeaways, which seems to be Scott inserting himself into something that doesn’t belong to him anymore. Most of all the new movie is wasted time.
When you take out the dead spaces where YouTubers react to the games, you begin to reveal the shallow middle of that design scheme, where nothing new emerges around telling the story in a new medium because nothing very daring is even tried. The movie is so tepid and so paint-by-numbers, lacking serious character development, not having any nice shots or compositions, and generally just relying on the brand and the appearance of the animatronics to sell the thing. So why is it not entirely that? We’re going to have many more chances for someone to try that out and see if it works. Just remember horror doesn’t belong to you anymore when it happens.