So, the trailer for M3GAN dropped this past fall, and everybody freaked out about the creepy talking and dancing doll. I did, too. A lesser movie would have coasted on that, and I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much more when I saw the film this past weekend. I mean, it’s a horror movie released in January, and those are always crap. Instead, I found a thoughtful and mordantly funny work about grief and loss, with a creepy dancing doll. Didn’t know I needed that in my life, but I did.
The plot follows the setup for many bad dramedies: 9-year-old Cady James (Violet McGraw) is in the back seat when her parents are killed in a car accident — boo, hiss! What a cliché! — and her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) takes custody despite being completely unsuited to caring for a child. Ah, but Gemma is a roboticist who works for a large toy company, and she has been working on a lifelike robot doll with artificial intelligence that allows it to learn about the child that it’s paired with so that it can be a perfect companion. She has named her creation Model 3 Generative Android, or M3GAN (portrayed by Amie Donald visually, with voice by Jenna Davis), and soon the robot is helping Cady through her grief.
There is so much bad parenting going on in this movie, and it’s awesome. The fatal car accident is caused by Cady’s parents arguing about her screen time while driving in a blizzard, and Gemma is all too happy to leave the hard work of helping Cady come to terms with her parents’ death to M3GAN. Both Gemma’s assistant (Jen Van Epps) and a child psychologist express deep reservations about Cady’s growing dependence on the doll: M3GAN “is supposed to supplement what parents are doing, not replace them.” That unfortunately is what the robot takes on herself, and Gemma’s instructions that M3GAN protect Cady from all harm leads the doll to beat a school bully (Jack Cassidy) and chase him to his death.
Creepy dolls have been a staple of horror movies since, well, how far back do you want to go? I’ll say the last segment of the 1975 movie Trilogy of Terror. The scariest movie doll I ever saw before this was from Lucky McKee’s 2002 film May. M3GAN is scarier than all these movie dolls because she’s not just some mindless killing machine, nor is she a passive conduit like Annabelle, nor is she a metaphor like the doll from May, nor is she full of cheesy jokes like Chucky. She’s scary because she’s capable of caring — when Cady breaks down in tears and admits that she misses her parents, M3GAN asks her to remember something good about them and sings an original song called “Tell Me Your Dreams” that made me cry and cry. Yes, a homicidal doll moved me to tears. Think of me what you will on that account.
The material about Gemma’s corporate overlords who only think of M3GAN as the hot new toy that will be flying off the shelves next Christmas makes for some good satire. New Zealand director Gerard Johnstone makes sure to throw in the occasional jump scare, and the dance M3GAN does before she goes after Gemma’s abusive boss (Ronny Chieng) is just the right amount of goofy. This whole time we’ve been thinking about horror movies as either “elevated horror” that traffics in big ideas and the lowbrow stuff that aims no higher than our id, but who ever said that you can’t do both? That’s the trick that M3GAN pulls off, and it’s almost as impressive as building a robot that develops its own emotions. There’s so much of 2023 left to go, and we might have found our horror movie of the year.