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M3GAN is a tech-based horror who is ‘more like a vampire than like a doll’

The director, producers, and star of M3GAN explain how the new killer doll flick is unique.

By James Grebey
M3GAN (2023)

M3GAN is the latest in a long line of killer dolls that have delighted and terrified horror movie and TV audiences for decades. M3GAN dances in the footsteps of the greats that have come before her, like Chucky, Anabelle, The Twilight Zone’s Talky Tina, and Brahms, to name just a few. But, what makes M3GAN unique is that unlike most of the other dolls, she isn’t haunted or possessed or magically alive. M3GAN is an A.I. run amok.

“Most of the creepy dolls tend to be objects of supernatural origin, and we wanted to do something a bit different,” producer James Wan tells SYFY WIRE ahead of M3GAN’s Jan. 6 premiere. “With the way the world is changing, and how technology is playing such a big part of our everyday life and how addicted we are to technology, it just felt right that M3GAN be a product of that world.”

In the film, M3GAN is an invention, a prototype toy created by a roboticist named Gemma. When Gemma gains custody of her orphaned niece, Cady, following a car accident, she decides to try M3GAN out and give her to Cady, but the A.I.-powered doll soon decides that she knows how to take care of Cady best and she’ll go to deadly lengths to do so. 

“She’s not lurking in a dark corner. She’s not a demonic presence. She’s not caused by some glitch. She makes an active decision to do what she does,” director Gerard Johnstone says. “This is an allegory about what happens when you ask an artificial intelligence to look after your child and they realize they can do a better job than you can. Good luck getting it back.”

Allison Williams, who plays Gemma, says that the nature of M3GAN’s terror “grounds” the film, to some degree. 

“She’s just part of the world, she’s part of their day-to-day life. She’s not haunting them at night or under very specific circumstances. She’s going to school with Cady and then sitting next to her while she sleeps and she’s allowed to do all these things. It’s all sanctioned,” Williams explains. “I think it’s creepier.”

RELATED: M3GAN star Allison Williams says she’s not a scream queen but a ‘gasp queen’

Although M3GAN is indeed creepy — and deadly — the film is stuffed with moments of delightful absurdity. Many, many times during the course of the movie, the camera will cut to M3GAN for a reaction shot, eliciting guffaws from the audience as the sassy robot doll tilts her head ever so slightly. This was intentional, as you don’t make a horror movie with an instantly iconic scene where the killer robot doll does TikTok-style dances by accident.  

M3GAN is a horror movie, but it has a lot of lighter moments in it,” Jason Blum, who produced M3GAN alongside Wan, his fellow contemporary horror icon, explains. “I think a lot of the movies that both of us have done —  if you look at the Insidious movies or Paranormal Activity — the most effective horror movies actually have a lot of comedy built into them, and M3GAN is no exception to that rule.”

“So much of what M3GAN represents is naturally funny.” Wan adds. “When she starts becoming extremely protective of the young girl, she goes off the rails, and when she goes off the rails, that’s when a lot of the humor comes across. She’s such a sassy, fun character. It was hard not to lean into it. I think it would be a mistake to not lean into the humor that comes with her.”

The balance between horror and humor extends to M3GAN’s actual design, too. So much of what makes a doll scary is that a doll is not supposed to be scary. Wan says everyone involved worked really hard on nailing the design, avoiding pitfalls like making M3GAN too realistic or too harmless.

RELATED: Who would win a fight between M3GAN and Chucky? 

“I wanted her to be really elegant so that she was a counterpoint to Chucky,” Johnstone says. “We obviously get those comparisons but I feel M3GAN has a strange allure and elegance to her that’s almost more like a vampire than like a doll.”

Director Gerard Johnstone on the set of M3GAN.

Getting the design right was important because there’s another distinction between M3GAN and most of the killer dolls that came before her. Most killer dolls, as Williams alluded to earlier, tend to be ominous, hiding in the off-screen shadows or sitting motionless until they suddenly come to life. (Chucky may ham it up headlining his own TV series, but he spent much more of Child’s Play hiding until just before the kill.) M3GAN, meanwhile, is a walking, talking character in her own right, meaning that viewers spend a lot of time seeing her in all of her scary, silly glory.

“So many of the killer doll movies are just wheeled out when the jump scare is required. She is a character. She’s front and center. She’s on-screen the whole time,” Johnstone says. “You’re in the uncanny valley for the entire movie.”

M3GAN is now in theaters. 

Want another killer doll fix? Stream Chucky on Peacock.