One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 116
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Louisa May Alcott famously said, “Dolls are safe companions.”
Clearly, Louisa May Alcott never went to the movies.
M3GAN, the latest in a slew of horror movies to feature a doll with murderous intentions, is making a killing at the box office. The nasty plaything has joined the time-honored ranks of such lethal cinematic toys as Chucky of the Child’s Play series and Annabelle of the Conjuring trilogy and her own eponymous cycle of films.
Since its wide release to theaters on Jan. 6, during a month that tends to be a slow time of the year at theaters, M3GAN has earned a very strong $61 million at the domestic box office. Internationally, the film has rung up another $35 million from 64 markets, raising its global tally to a sizable and startling $97 million.
That’s a killer number for a genre film that cost only $12 million to produce. Strong reviews, enthusiastic audience reaction and a very inclusive PG-13 rating have come together to create the perfect vehicle to draw audiences into the theater to have fun being communally frightened.
Or as respected box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian recently put it in film industry trade paper Variety, “Scary is scary, no matter the month.”
Like the legion of deadly doll movies before it, M3GAN (that’s Model 3 Generative Android, or a life-size humanoid robot doll powered by artificial intelligence) centers on a doll becoming the plaything of a child and then developing a self-awareness that leads to a whole lot of hostility toward anyone who comes between her and her human companion. Directed by Gerard Johnstone and produced by horror veterans James Wan and Jason Blum, the film stars Alison Williams, Violet McGraw and New Zealand-born child actress Amie Donald as the AI-infused killer doll, herself.
James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water remains in the first place of the current box office, of course, but the fact that little M3GAN has twice finished in second place behind Cameron’s behemoth is simply wild. What’s even more remarkable is that Cameron’s watery off-world epic just crossed the $2 billion global box office mark—and that right behind it is a little horror film, the kind Cameron used to make at the outset of his career in the ‘80s.
And how about this? Since its opening, M3GAN has triumphed at the box office over such newly released films as the Tom Hanks sentimental tearjerker A Man Called Otto, the Gerald Butler action thriller Plane, and the reboot of the 1990 comedy House Party.
Clearly, the people have spoken and they’re enjoying spending their January with a lethal robotic little girl, just as they have enjoyed dropping in on her chilling brethren over the years.
The killer doll subgenre of deadly toy fright films can be traced back to Tod Browning’s The Devil-Doll. In that 1936 creep-out, Lionel Barrymore is an unfairly incarcerated banker who escapes from prison and learns the secret formula for transforming humans into miniature, animated puppets. He then promptly unleashes his army of living “dolls” to exact retribution on the financiers who have wronged him.
The Devil Doll, the penultimate film by the great Browning, director of the landmark Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932), remains a genuinely bizarre and unsettling melodrama. Much of this is due to the filmmaker’s crafty camerawork and the outstanding special effects utilized to depict the movie’s malevolent playthings.
By the ‘60s, a smattering of Twilight Zone episodes had also embedded themselves into audience’s psyches, led by the classic “Living Doll” in 1963. That segment follows Telly Savalas as a frustrated, seemingly infertile man named Erich who takes his frustrations out on his new stepdaughter, Christie, much to the growing anger of her new wind-up doll, Talky Tina. When the chatty toy begins using such phrases as “I hate you” and “I’m going to kill you,” it’s clear that that situation has moved into dangerous territory.
“Living Doll,” one of the finest installments from The Twilight Zone’s final season, is still a nasty little goodie. It features a character named Annabelle, who is Christie’s mother. Her moniker clearly provided the inspiration for Annabelle in the Conjuring and Annabelle franchises.
The late ‘70s marked the beginning of a killer doll phalanx marching onto screens large and small, beginning with poor Karen Black being terrorized in her apartment by a knife-wielding, sharp-toothed Native Zuni fetish doll in a story in the 1975 TV movie triptych Trilogy of Terror, directed by Dan Curtis. Over-the-top hand-to-doll action and furious camerawork elevated this one to instant cult classic status, and Karen Black found herself still talking about the film when she attended horror and sci-fi conventions decades later.
This was followed by Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1979), a small-scale psychological horror piece by the soon-to-be-Oscar-winning director of 1982’s Gandhi. It deals with a mentally disturbed ventriloquist (Anthony Hopkins) dealing with his foul-mouthed and scary-looking dummy Fats, who threatens to reveal the ventriloquist’s problems to those around him.
There was more to come in the ‘80s, with the rise of the straight-to-video market and the arrival of such cable-ready smashes as Screamtime (1983), The Devil’s Gift (1984) and cult filmmaker Stuart Gordon’s underappreciated Dolls (1987). The appearance of a demonic clown doll in the Spielberg-produced smash Poltergeist (1982) injected a shot of respectability and legitimacy into the trend, and helped set the stage for the arrival of the infamous Chucky in 1988’s Child’s Play.
Child’s Play concerned an on-the-run serial killer who performs a voodoo ritual that transfers his soul into a “Good Guy”-branded talking doll named Chucky—who then turns into, well, a “Bad Guy” voiced by Brad Dourif. It proved to be the launching pad for a major horror franchise that now includes six sequels (including one where Chucky hooks up with a bride doll named Tiffany, voiced by Jennifer Tilly), a television series, a remake, comic books, a video game and a profusion of tie-in merchandise.
Though the later incarnations of Child’s Play have mostly played as darkly humorous satirical slashers (that’s also largely the case with the Annabelle franchise of the 2010s), the original film clicks as a clever and effective horror outing. One particularly horrific scene finds Chucky using a voodoo doll to snap the limbs of his former dark arts instructor like twigs. Thirty-four years later, it still freaks me out.
Though nothing official has been announced, there’s buzz from the Child’s Play and Annabelle series producers that their beloved artificial progeny will return to wreak more havoc on the innocent—and audiences!—down the line.
Meanwhile, it looks like M3GAN is getting quite comfortable with her newfound stardom. On Jan. 12, her wardrobe was the subject of a New York Times style piece. And five days later, it was announced that the little mechanical murderess will be starring in a sequel that’s already been scheduled to premiere in theaters on January 17, 2025.
The working title is M3GAN 2.0 and we think that's just fine–as long as the delightfully demonic doll is okay with it, that is...
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.