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Popular video game fails as much as a movie

“Five Nights at Freddy’s” isn’t half as scary as a parent-on-parent fight or two I witnessed at Chuck E. Cheese a few years ago, but that’s another story, too intense for any storytelling medium.

Let’s talk about This story. Video game creator Scott Cawthon’s Chuck E.-inspired 2014 phenomenon takes place in Freddy Fazbear’s decrepit Pizzajoint, among the requisite ball pit, frayed electrical wiring, and the smell of death and a faint whiff of cake. Menacing animatronic creatures – a bear, a rabbit, a one-clawed fox, a face-eating robot bird – rule the place at night and are inhabited by the mangled bodies and tortured souls of children… well, spoilers there, I’m a little late with the warning, sorry Don’t look, I’m continuing.

In the game, you take on the role of night security guard Mike. You watch security cameras that barely work and try to survive when robot killers come for you. There’s a background maze that drips and drips, but Cawthon’s simple setup has led to many sequels and a host of spin-offs, subreddits, and fan theories. This is a movie now.

And? He’s an oddball, uncertain of his tone and intent. Total R-rated sadism? Half the gaming world is already angry that the movie didn’t go in that direction. Instead, squeaking in with a PG-13, the filmmakers and screenwriters have opted to lean away from the five nights of steadily escalating carnage and body parts and toward a thick layer of serious new material devoted to Mike’s horrific childhood, frequently depicted through flashbacks and nightmares. These lead him, like a dream state detective, to the Nebraska campground where Mike’s brother was kidnapped, never to be found.

Mike’s current life is much the same as his dream state: stuck, bereft, and searching for answers. He does his best to keep custody of his little sister. And here we run into what the film industry has called “story problems” for over a century.

Cawthon and fellow screenwriters Seth Cuddeback and Emma Tammi (who also direct) devote serious attention to developing the central brother-sister relationship. Sometimes it works. As Mike, Josh Hutcherson (“The Hunger Games”) convincingly draws you into a character’s dour mood by doing very little. But there’s a ton of complexity and confusion in “Five Nights at Freddy’s.”

The adaptation shifts from scenes of Mike in his dream state to the team of hapless young thugs employed by Mike’s evil aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson, who deserves better) to discredit Mike and thus gain custody of her niece (Piper Rubio). A kindly police officer (Elizabeth Lail) knows more about Fazbear’s bitter market than she lets on. And there’s the annoying business consultant (Matthew Lillard) who recruits Mike as Fazbear’s newest night watchman.

I don’t care much for neatness in most genre exercises, but this one is pretty cumbersome. I take issue with the film’s attempt to be a cutesy version of “Saw” in which faces are sliced ​​off by a robot creature’s buzzing saw blades. To keep the PG-13 rating intact, the camera and editor cut the video just before the explosion almost every time. That means millions of 8-year-olds will likely be at the multiplexes this weekend in fun, along with older kids and young adults caught up in the nostalgia of the hours they spent as Mike at home. Current box office estimates show “Five Nights at Freddy’s” will nearly double its $25 million production budget by Monday.

Cawthon has known both great love and great hate on the internet. Two years ago his political views and donations (he is an anti-abortion Christian Republican as well as a Trump fan) caused some controversy and online pushback from old fans. There is a scene in the movie where Mike longs for the traditional God-fearing family that was cruelly taken from him. Hutcherson knows exactly how difficult it is to emphasize this part: It’s enough for the record. By the way, the premise of “Five Nights at Freddy’s” is completely about cruelty and would probably make more sense as a straight-up R-rated splatterfest.

On the other hand, would I have liked a more gratuitous treatment of the same material? Reader, I cannot say. This is at least shorter than the “It” movies. Once the child abduction horror movie exceeds the 2-hour mark, the EXIT sign on the left of the screen starts to look better than the screen itself.

“Five Nights at Freddy’s” — 2 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG-13 (for strong violent content, gory images and language)

Running time: 1:50

How to watch: Premieres in theaters October 26

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

excitement @phillipstribune



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