Creepy as heck, ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ delivers top-tier psychological horror for adults; ‘Dumb Money’ a terrific fact-based comedy-drama exposing business world craziness; Over-cooked try-hard Oz thriller ‘Mercy Road’ misses the mark

Help!: A child (Piper Rubio) faces danger in ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s.

FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S ***1/2 (109 minutes) M
The heart-warming evolution of quality horror continues apace with Five Nights at Freddy’s, a very well-directed, adult-oriented psychological terror trip with a strong character-based story that sits several notches above your standard disposable slice’n’dice piece designed for the Halloween season.

Putting in a terrific, understated lead performance, Josh Hutcherson (Hunger Games, etc) plays Mike Schmidt, a man damaged by a childhood trauma that has cursed him with recurring nightmares.

Desperate to hold down a job, he accepts an offer from his kindly career advisor (Matthew Lillard) as a nighttime security guard at a derelict pizza parlour called Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza on the outskirts of town.

Once big in the 1980s for its video games and pinball machines, the place is covered in dust and stricken with poor electricity.

It is also still home to a set of giant animatronic creatures who used to regale the family crowds with era hits, including Talking in Your Sleep by The Romantics.

Dark tales of missing children knit their way into Mike’s tortured mind, manifesting in a bout of increasingly disturbing dreams and increasingly weird happenings at the old pizza place.

As a man straining to hold his pathetic life together as he battles his inner demons and with his hostile Aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) for custody of his kid brother (Lucas Grant) and sister (Piper Rubio), Hutcherson does a sterling job anchoring all the horror elements with his convincingly distraught portrayal.

Good horror films rely on suspension of disbelief and here it is deftly engineered without recourse to cliché or cheap theatrics.

Director/co-writer Emma Tammi provides lashings of spooky atmosphere and a handful of quality jolts, yet what really gives the film the creeps is its compelling “vivid dream” angle.

The tangle of Mike’s unconscious mind and how it invades the real world drives the film, putting emotional tension before bloodshed (though there is that).

Kudos must go to the marvellous retro set design of the pizza venue and the film’s use of unnerving animatronics, provided by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (Sesame Street; The Dark Crystal, Star Wars, etc). It proves how practical effects still hold pride of place in a CGI movie world.

It’s sure to be a big Halloween season hit.

Incidentally, having absolutely no familiarity with the video game on which Five Nights at Freddy’s is based is no impediment to enjoying the film, especially if you are a genre nut.

Being able to come into a film cold and enjoy it for what it is serves as testament to its makers, including co-writer/producer Scott Cawthon (who created the video game) and producer Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse Productions has given us such top-tier fare as The Black Phone, M3gan, Sinister, Whiplash and The Gift.

Buy order: Paul Dano in ‘Dumb Money’.

DUMB MONEY ***1/2 (104 minutes) MA
As with The Big Short, the logic-defying, mind-scrambling craziness of the modern business world is captured with piercing clarity in Dumb Money, a fast, singularly frightening fact-based dramedy about the 2021 online phenomenon that turned conventional Wall Street thinking inside out.

From his rickety home studio, self-styled stock market commentator Keith Gill (Paul Dano in a top turn) ignites a grass-roots movement among his legion of followers to invest in GameStop, a failing computer games company.

Against all expectations, the stock price skyrockets as his audience loyally follows his lead. Fund managers panic as they face losing billions because the stock is going in the opposite direction it’s supposed to.

The charge is also fuelled by resentment of big business fat cats as high school students and young parents suck up shares via an app on their phones that makes investing so easy it encourages people to act on impulse and emotion rather than actual thought.

The film’s terrific ensemble includes Seth Rogen, Vincent D’Onofrio and Shailene Woodley, with director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, I, Tonya; Cruella) moving things at a cracking pace, punching the point that no rule in the business world, however sacrosanct, is immune from the collective will of people who barely know what they’re doing.

In that gear, Dumb Money also serves as a cautionary tale to those bent on screwing the system to be mindful of not screwing themselves at the same time.

Terrific stuff.

Frantic: Luke Bracey in ‘Mercy Road’.

MERCY ROAD * (85 minutes) MA
(This is a reprint of the MIFF review published after the screening on Friday 18 August, 2023)

Straight up, Mercy Road is not a very good film. Ambitious, sure, but one that falls well short.

Set almost entirely in and around a speeding car, a frantic, sweat-smeared father (Luke Bracey) screams and shouts and swears his way through a non-stop barrage of phone calls as he tries locating his 12-year old daughter Ruby (Martha Kate Morgan) who has been kidnapped following an image of her appearing online.

It’s always a huge ask for one actor to be burdened with carrying a film almost entirely on their own, so kudos to Bracey, who did such good work in Hacksaw Ridge, and whose performance here must have been as exhausting to sustain as it is to watch.

That said, it’s way over-cooked. Driven by fury and desperation, the constant screaming and venting prevents any real tension from building. The rage is neither controlled, channeled or contained, it just spews forth at full volume, demonstrating how rage that is muted is far more compelling.

The plot, too, begins to crater once the narrative goes into real-time mode with a digital phone displaying a 60-minute countdown. More and more things make less and less sense, such as what the police are actually doing during the pursuit. As thrillers go, it’s far from taut.

The nearest point of comparison is the excellent 2014 film Locke.

Also set entirely in a car, it tells of a construction supervisor (Tom Hardy, in a superb turn) who tries organizing a massive concrete pour taking place the next day.

He can’t be on site as he’s rushing to be with the woman he had a fling with and who is about to give birth.

It’s great stuff and a far better rendering of the single-location concept that we see in Mercy Road. Check it out on Stan.

It is also singularly unfortunate that the premise of Mercy Road is similar to the pretty good Liam Neeson thriller Retribution, in which he frantically drives around Berlin in a booby-trapoped car while dealing with a villain over the phone. It streams on Prime from 24 November.

One aspect of Mercy Road that is of passing interest is how it was made using giant LED screens displaying backgrounds that were digitally created. (“The first virtually produced Australian feature”, claims the MIFF blurb.)

This allowed for great cost efficiencies – small crew; no pricey location shoots at night – and remarkable flexibility in manipulating the images to suit the live action.

So, apart from the actor and some limited use of physical sets, all other visual elements in the film are CGI.

From a technical perspective that makes the film mildly noteworthy as a locally-made showcasing of innovative, though far-from-new production techniques. (Here’s a good piece about how LED “video walls” represent a step up from the traditional key screen process.)

Unfortunately, at the Friday night screening at Hoyts Melbourne Central (Cinema 10, 8.45pm) it was difficult to appreciate the look of the film because the image quality was so poor.

Projected onto a huge screen in a wide format, the film simply looked muddy, with all the darkness, rapid editing and constant cuts to a mobile phone making it hard to make out. In short, the film looked terrible.

In the Q&A after the screening, producer Alex Proyas – noted Aussie-gone-Hollywood director of Dark City, I, Robot, The Crow, Knowing – spoke with admirable candour about the film.

He felt the grading of Mercy Road was somewhat short of perfect and mentioned the difference between the finished film and the original screenplay (by Christopher Lee Pelletier, Jesse Heffring and director John Curran).

He also added, with some jocularity, how his experience producing Mercy Road served as a reminder to stick with directing.