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SYFY WIRE Five Nights at Freddy's

Why Five Nights at Freddy’s Is One of the Best Intro-to-Horror Movies of 2023

Think of it like a good slice of pizza; all you need is an appetite for fright.

By Benjamin Bullard

It set day-and-date opening records at the box office and soared to the top of Peacock’s list of the platform’s most-streamed debuts ever. Now it’s time to take year-end stock of why Five Nights at Freddy’s, despite infamously being stranded for years in development hell, struck such a deliciously horrific chord with horror fans when it finally emerged from the creepy pizza oven in 2023.

In one sense, it’s simple: Five Nights at Freddy’s (or FNaF for short) already was a well-established video game franchise with a uniquely devoted (and vocally viral) fan base; a huge online community had long clamored to see creator Scott Cawthon’s murderous animatronic animals cross over into movie-land. Thanks to that wave of ready-made enthusiasm, this flick could’ve been a total terror dud and still done at least respectable numbers on the strength of all that pent-up fan curiosity alone.

Thankfully, though, Five Nights is far from a half-baked horror tale. With Josh Hutcherson on duty as night-shift security guard Mike Schmidt, alongside Matthew Lillard as the shady man pulling strings behind the scenes, the casting felt suited to the movie’s video game-based source material — a vibe that also extends to young actor Piper Rubio (as Mike’s lil’ sister Abby), Elizabeth Lail (as a local cop who knows more than she’s telling), and Mary Stuart Masterson (as the siblings’ cruelly manipulative Aunt Jane).

RELATED: Matthew Lillard Reveals What He Wants From a Five Nights at Freddy's Sequel

But there’s more than just apt casting to thank for Five Nights’ breakout success, not to mention its pizza-perfect PG-13 positioning as the kind of horror movie that even the timid can enjoy. Looking back on it all, we’ve got a few theories as to why FNaF emerged this year to become one of the best ways to dip an intrepid toe into the wider horror genre.

Why Five Nights at Freddy's is such a great introduction to horror movies

Five Nights at Freddy's is friendly to first-timers (and even ‘fraidy cats!)

Like the voyeuristically anxious game series it’s based on, Five Nights at Freddy’s is plenty scary. But unlike deeper R-rated horror-movie cuts, it’s really not all that bloody or brutal. The franchise’s famous reliance on spring-loaded tension means that most of its scares come from dread rather than gore, making it way more accessible to terror-averse moviegoers than your typical scream-inducing slasher flick. It also doesn’t need an instruction manual to bring franchise newcomers up to speed. Though the movie’s deeply steeped in the lore of the games that inspired it, FNaF tells a self-contained story that doesn’t task viewers with having prior knowledge of Freddy Fazbear and his fluffy menagerie of overstuffed pizza-parlor animal assassins. From the ground up, it builds its world effectively right there on the screen, putting longtime fans and first-timers alike on equal story footing.

Five Nights at Freddy's understands its scary source material

When the guy who created the video game franchise is also a co-producer and screenwriter on the movie, there’s bound to be a thick crust of continuity and consistency across formats. Cawthon (who made his first Five Nights game as an answer to critics who claimed his previous game characters came off as unintentionally creepy) teamed with horror mastermind and fellow producer Jason Blum to get the movie’s tone just right, fully aware of the unique brand of fear that had helped make the games such a hit among fans in the first place. They knew, too, that fans can’t interact with a movie the same way they can with games, so the story itself had to be both substantial and engaging. And with a surprisingly poignant family hook that loops in with the games’ deeper history of the tragically cursed Freddy Fazbear enterprise, the creative team found a perfect way to get viewers invested… and to make sure, by the end, to reward their attentiveness.

RELATED: Why There Won't Be an R-Rated Cut of the Five Nights at Freddy's Movie

Five Nights at Freddy's is a faithfully creepy Valentine to longtime franchise fans

The first Five Nights video game released in 2014, and through the ensuing near-decade that's followed, fans who got on board early have bonded over a certain sense of shared ownership in celebrating Cawthon’s haywire amusement-verse. And as everybody knows, the cinematic trail forged by earlier attempts at adapting video games for the big screen is notoriously littered with wonky efforts that just plain didn’t work. It’s a trend that hopefully is now in full reversal, thanks to recent adaptations (Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Sonic the Hedgehog) that’ve sent fans away from theaters satisfied. Five Nights at Freddy’s might just be the most fan-faithful of the whole movie bunch; alongside this year’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie, there’s probably no game-to-screen adaptation that’s so abundantly rewarded its core gamer audience with Easter eggs, meta shout-outs to real-world fandom, and clever, totally on-point incorporation of the deep lore that threads throughout the game franchise itself.

Hey, maybe we’re overthinking things here — Five Nights at Freddy’s doesn’t necessarily need to be deconstructed to be enjoyed. At the end of the day, in fact, that’s probably one of its biggest scary charms. Like a good slice of pizza, there’s no need to overthink things: Just bring a healthy appetite for fright and enjoy.

Five Nights at Freddy’s is streaming now on Peacock here  — and be sure to check out the special Night Shift Edition on 4K UHD, Blu-ray™ and DVD from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, featuring in-depth interviews with director Emma Tammi, Hutcherson and Lillard, plus The Jim Henson Creature Shop creators who helped bring Freddy and his animatronic pals to life.