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Why M3GAN Is One of the Year's Best Horror Films

The breakout horror hit of 2023 remains some of the best work from the genre in the last year.

By Matthew Jackson

Some genre films in the 2020s seem specifically engineered to be meme content. We're not going to name names, but you know them when you see them, films that are so focused on a handful of viral moments that they forget any coherent grasp of character, theme, or satisfying story. This is particularly true of horror films right now, so it wasn't surprising that when the first trailers for M3GAN hit the web, people started to wonder if there would be anything more to the movie.

Of course, we now know there was more. Much more.

Why M3GAN Was One of the Best Horror Films of 2023

Driven by early critical buzz and, yes, a strong meme presence online ahead of its premiere, M3GAN (now available from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment) quickly rose up to become one of the best and most entertaining horror films of 2023, a film interested in so much more than creating GIFs of a dancing robot for sharing far and wide. In the hands of writer Akela Cooper, producer James Wan, and director Gerard Johnstone, the film became an absolute blast of sci-fi-horror fun that's also one of the year's most rewatchable genre films, and looking back on it now, it's easy to see why. 

RELATED: James Wan Teases M3GAN Will Return in a 'Big Way' for Horror Sequel

Tone is very important to horror films, because horror films are emotional experiences at their core. You want to elicit an involuntary, instinctual response from your audience, kindling a sense of dread or unease or pure white-hot terror in them that they can't control or dissect until after the film is over. That sense of controlling the emotional experience becomes even more important when you're talking about films that blend different sensibilities, inserting overt comedy into the horror, or metafictional commentary, or even a sense of ironic detachment that still requires you to understand the horror gags when they come. At first glance, you would think that M3GAN's success hinges on that detachment, as evidenced by the viral dancing and the film's use of the tech world as a backdrop for its narrative. But that's not what makes M3GAN work so well.

M3GAN (2023)

Through a combination of Cooper's script and Johnstone's direction, M3GAN establishes itself pretty early on as a surprisingly earnest piece of work. It is, after all, about a grieving family, a woman (Allison Williams) who's lost her sibling, and a child (Violet McGraw) who's lost her parents. When they're pushed together, neither Gemma (Williams) nor Cady (McGraw) really knows what to do with one another, but they eventually come to bond over Gemma's work, and in the end, M3GAN (Amie Donald) arrives as a kind of emotional crutch for each of them. Gemma pours her working life into making the robot work, while Cady pours all of her emotional hopes and desires into her new, artificial best friend. We as an audience are still very aware that the film is building these relationships around a dancing doll with a killer instinct, but the emotions are there from the beginning. If you meet the film on its emotional level, you understand that these are two humans leaning a little bit too hard into a technological crutch, and that crutch is learning all too quickly how much they need her.

RELATED: James Wan Teases M3GAN Will Return in a 'Big Way' for Horror Sequel

The graspable emotional core of the film, coupled with solid performances from Williams and McGraw, means that M3GAN retains a sense of sincerity throughout, which buys it all manner of goodwill from us, the audience. That gives the film license to play with the dancing, and the kills, and even weird moments of humor like the laughing cop in the midst of explaining something horrific to Gemma. But even with those moments in mind, the film goes deeper in its sense of earnestness and its quest to capture the particular reality of this situation. At no point does M3GAN seek to poke fun at its concept, or to pull back from the reality of the moment and wink at its audience. Instead, through the relationship between M3GAN and Cady, we see a child's eye view of everything that's happening, up to and including the violence. That makes the film a sort of dark, updated spin on E.T., and it means that even when we're laughing or making memes based on the film, we're aware of the emotional roots that strengthen the entire narrative.

So yes, M3GAN remains wonderfully GIF-worthy, but the true success of the film lies in its unflinching heart. It's what makes us invested, what makes us delighted, and most importantly, what makes us afraid.

M3GAN is available now from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.