Horror is an extremely difficult genre to do well. First of all, what we find scary is too subjective. Sure, we know that jump scares will probably get some sort of instant reaction from just about anyone, but ultimately, one person’s tense thriller is another persons yawn-fest.
It’s also a genre whose foundation, walls, roof, basement and all of the trimmings are built on a century’s worth of narrative tropes: the cabin in the woods, exorcisms, found-footage, the masked slasher, zombies, clowns, and, of course, haunted dolls.
In the pantheon of horror movies, the films that are both well-made and genuinely frightening are vastly outnumbered by an oversaturated market of schlocky, downright laughable B-movies.
But then a film – a beautiful gem of a film – comes along that says, ‘I know what I am. I’m a big pile of tropes, and I’m ridiculous, but if you’re laughing at something, you’re gonna be laughing with me.’ A true comedy-horror.
Making a great comedy-horror isn’t Child’s Play
Here’s the concept: a preteen girl named Cady (Violet McGraw) is orphaned by a traumatic car accident and is sent to live with her career-driven, toy-maker/roboticist aunt, Gemma (Allison Williams). In an attempt to ease the learning curve of raising a traumatised child (with an additional bonus of getting ahead in her career) Gemma introduces Cady to her latest project – the artificially intelligent robot doll M3GAN designed to be the ultimate toy and best friend. However, it’s fast revealed that M3GAN’s programming to protect can be taking to the extreme…
M3GAN (which stands for Model 3 Generative Android) is one part Chucky, one part Esther from Orphan, and one part YouTube compilation of The Shadiest Moments from RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked. She’s perky, well-dressed and well – a little bit of a bitch.
From the outset, we understand that this is not a serious film. It’s not an out-and-out slapstick comedy – the characters are engaging seriously within their universe and they’re facing what they perceive to be a frightening situation, and M3GAN is genuinely unsettling. But everything from the casting of comedy actors, to the plot, from the setting and the overuse of tropes, is too on the nose to be a 100% earnest horror.
The best part about the evil puppet trope in horror is that, because you’re trying to create a feeling of unease, the Uncanny Valley is where you want to be. Many have drawn a parallel between M3GAN and the baby puppet which was produced (but ultimately not used) in the Twilight sequels, Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and Part 2. But in M3GAN, the design is perfectly unsettling.
Side note: M3GAN was filmed in New Zealand, directed by Kiwi director Gerard Johnstone, and M3GAN’s body double is 12-year-old Kiwi Aime Donald. With that in mind, I’m officially declaring M3GAN a NZ icon, as quintessentially Kiwi as Crowded House, L&P and pavlova.
It seems that New Zealanders are masters of the comedy-horror genre, with M3GAN joining the ranks of Deathgasm (2015), What We Do In the Shadows (2014) and Black Sheep (2006). In an interview for Dead Meat, M3GAN director Gerard Johnstone said: ‘I think in New Zealand we’re so giddy and can’t believe we’re making a movie, so that’s why they’re often so ridiculous.’
A new camp classic? ‘No more play time, now it’s SLAY time’
Camp is a term that tends to be liberally thrown around in a bunch media analysis, and brace yourself because I’m about to do it again. But when it comes to M3GAN, at least on a surface level, it just feels so right. Clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks so – early audience reception to the film saw M3GAN’s marketing team lean fully into the concept that M3GAN is a ‘queer icon’.
play nice and you’ll be ok…❤️🔥 see me in theaters january 6♬ original sound – M3GAN
Her hyper-feminine preppy outfits, her feisty zingers and her hilarious rendition of Sia’s Titanium were sure to make her an instant hit with a queer audience. It’s only a matter of time before a wave of drag routines emerge in the film’s wake – a wave that has already begun:
@lemoodragbrunch @shes_champagne @meetm3gan Champagne giving us M3GAN at brunch this weekend! #lemoodragbrunch #dragbrunch #m3gandance #m3gan #m3gandoll #m3gancostume ♬ original sound – Le Moo Drag Brunch
But camp is not just about an association with LGBTQ audiences. Queer communities have historically been vanguards of camp, but ultimately it’s an aesthetic appreciation of media and art that isn’t ‘good’ by typical standards. As Susan Sontag explained in her essay Notes on Camp, ‘The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious.’
Sontag also detailed that camp isn’t an outright parody or satire either. ‘Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much.”‘
The question is: does M3GAN qualify as a camp film, or just a film with camp elements? It isn’t a laugh a minute camp cult classic like Clue, or even as obviously silly as Child’s Play. It certainly isn’t a straight up horror film either.
Does M3GAN have a tight logical plot, or particularly compelling characters? No. Is it scary? Again, it really varies from person to person, but for every viewer who is frightened by M3GAN running through the woods on all-fours, there’s probably a handful of people in the same cinema howling with laughter. Is it an entertaining romp with just the right touch of self-awareness to have a great time? You bet.
Director Gerard Johnstone describes it best in an interview with Collider, when he said, ‘The world already has Ex Machina, that very slick stylish meditation on artificial intelligence … and I didn’t want to make anything like Chucky or Child’s Play because that’s also been done, we’ve had the real fun campy goof-off version, and this is just somewhere in the middle of those things … it’s self aware and it’s off-beat.’
The real villain of M3GAN is the iPad
Obviously this film is meant to draw out our fears about the future of artificial intelligence and the insidious way AI is embedding itself in our homes and lives. Of course it is – we’ve been beating that horse since HAL-9000 ogled us with his big red laser-eye back in ’68.
But I argue that M3GAN is showing us the inevitable future of something far more terrifying, far more insidious, and less spoken about: iPad kids.
We’ve all seen them: whether they’re rolling along in a pram, sitting quietly at a family brunch at a café, sitting on a slide at a public park, or tucked into a corner at a family BBQ, they’re the kids whose eyes are always glued to some sort of screen, usually devouring a YouTube compilation of Coco Melon or Elsa/Spiderman cartoons.
This is not an opportunity to preach ‘durr hburr technology is bad fire is scary and thomas edison was witch‘, or critique modern parents who are trying their best. We all rely on technology, and no matter what generation you’re from, it’s likely that you were placed in front of a TV show at some point in your life by a caregiver in dire need of some peace.
If iPads were around back in the day, you better believe parents would be using them to placate you during your bi-weekly temper tantrum in the grocery store.
But we haven’t deeply explored the consequences of what a never ending supply of media content and on-demand dopamine hits can have on a developing mind.
In M3GAN, the robot is promoted not only as a doll and friend, but as an alternative to the menial aspects of parenting. ‘Studies indicate that a staggering 78% of a parent’s time is spent dishing out the same basic instructions. So I found someone else to pick up the slack,’ says Aunt Gemma at one point.
One of the only times my cinema reacted with genuine shock and horror during M3GAN was in a scene where Cady is throwing a huge fit because the robot is taken away from her, and she attacks her aunt. It was jarring and unnerving, because while we were all laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, in the background this child had become cripplingly dependent on her toy for stability, and the resulting violence was something we should have seen coming.
‘As crazy as M3GAN is, I don’t think that this is too far-fetched to assume that when we have someone who can do the things that M3GAN can do, that we would sort of shift those parental duties to it, because y’know parenting is hard and why wouldn’t you,’ said Johnstone in his Dead Meat interview.
‘…but I think at the same time once you do that, just don’t expect to get your kid back.’
M3GAN is in cinemas nationally.