The graveyard of awful horror comedies is among the saddest and most boring in all of film. It’s filled with hundreds of bad-taste parodies, laughless messes, silly garbage, and probably a few unfortunate movies that weren’t deliberately designed to be laughed at. The worst movies in the subgenre feel like tightrope acts that try too hard to balance what the creators seem to think are two opposite extremes, hoping the audience laughs one moment and screams the next. But following in the footsteps of classics like the original Chucky movie Child’s Play, director Gerard Johnstone and the team behind the new horror comedy M3GAN realize that laughing and screaming aren’t actually that different — and most importantly, that either one can be the key to a great time.
Written by Malignant screenwriters Akela Cooper and James Wan (director of Malignant, The Conjuring, Insidious, and Aquaman), M3GAN follows Cady (Violet McGraw), a young girl who recently lost both her parents in a car accident and now has to live with her married-to-her-career aunt, Gemma (Girls and Get Out’s Allison Williams). The seemingly good news for Cady is that Gemma is a roboticist at a high-tech toy company, and she is working on a new super-lifelike doll called M3GAN (Amie Donald) — short for Model 3 Generative Android — that’s programmed to be the best artificial friend a kid could have. Of course, if you’ve seen a trailer or even the poster, you probably know that M3GAN, like all sufficiently advanced AI (or any other newly developed technology in a horror movie), eventually takes things a little too far.
For fans of the murderous doll genre, parts of this plot may sound remarkably similar to 2019’s awful Child’s Play reboot, which swapped out longtime (and returned) Chucky voice actor Brad Dourif in favor of Mark Hamill. It also removed every ounce of charm the series has cultivated over the four decades since the first Child’s Play, and replaced the story of the serial-killer-possessed doll with one about AI run amok.
But while there certainly are similarities, M3GAN avoids all the pitfalls that plagued the new Child’s Play. While that movie tried to trade on bad meta jokes and irony, M3GAN errs toward the brilliant tone of the original Child’s Play, with perfectly straight-faced meanness that’s so absurd, it always tips into comedy at exactly the right moments.
M3GAN, like most of the Chucky franchise or the Evil Dead movies, was designed with the principle that the best horror comedies are an exercise in audience understanding. They’re playing a game with you. These movies never let you know when it’s OK to laugh. They play their cruelest gags straight, rather than pausing for a punchline like a traditional comedy might. They throw in joke after darkly comic joke, daring viewers to laugh in spite of themselves, forcing a buildup of tension that eventually resolves in cathartic giggles at the weirdest, most uncomfortable moments — like M3GAN’s truly hilarious sequence where the killer doll sings to Cady, turning a familiar pop hit into an unexpected bedtime song.
By the end, these movies guide the audience to the conclusion they expected all along. Anxiously awaiting the next safe moment to laugh, to relieve the comedic pressure, isn’t much different from waiting for a dreaded jump scare when a movie is foreshadowing a threat ahead. Laughing and screaming aren’t opposites; they’re the exact same release valve, turned in different directions. Filmmakers who use both often enough, alternating them with the right cadence and intensity, can usually get an audience to stop caring about the difference and just go along for the ride.
This might be the game M3GAN plays best. As with many of Sam Raimi’s best movies, from Evil Dead 2 to Drag Me to Hell, every moment of M3GAN is both endearingly silly and sneeringly mean, which is what gives it its power.
Far from feeling penned in by the limited concept of a too-smart doll gone rogue, M3GAN mines its more authentic dramatic moments for comedy exactly as often as it weaponizes its ridiculous murders. Cooper, Wan, and Johnstone want us to laugh uncomfortably at the inept cruelty of Gemma snatching a toy away from the grieving Cady because “it’s a collectible!” just as much as we laugh at the objectively silly terror of M3GAN dropping down to all fours to hunt down a vicious bully. After all, if we’re watching a movie to laugh at something awful, why should murder draw a hard line about how far dark comedy can go?
M3GAN’s perfectly played-straight tone takes a while to settle in, not because the movie doesn’t start off on the right foot (it does), but because it’s almost jarring to see Johnstone display so much confidence in his own unique tone. His movie never offers even a tiny smirk or a hint of irony to let us know it’s in on the joke, because that would break its wonderful spell. Instead, from its very first moments, it straps viewers in for its special blend of sincerely hilarious meanness, as if Johnstone is positive you’ll settle in eventually. And once that dam breaks, suddenly every moment is a riot.
For this reason, it’s hard to judge whether M3GAN is ever actually scary, in large part because Johnstone and the writers don’t seem interested in anything so one-note. By the time the action kicks into high gear and M3GAN starts her most unhinged rampage, the movie’s particular rhythm has made nearly everything happening on screen hilarious, no matter how heinous it gets. That’s exactly the mark of a truly great horror comedy. Even Charles Lee Ray himself would be proud.
M3GAN debuts in theaters on Jan. 6.