M3GAN looks concerned in close-up

In the first weekend of January 2023, as James Cameron’s juggernaut sequel "Avatar: The Way of Water" continued to dominate the U.S. box office for the fourth week in a row, the number two spot was claimed by a somewhat unusual winner: "M3GAN," the James Wan-produced horror flick about Cady (Violet McGraw), a young orphan whose roboticist aunt (Allison Williams) gives her an advanced android made to look and act like a preteen girl. The girl and her new robot best friend, nicknamed M3GAN, quickly become inseparable, but soon M3GAN takes her programming imperative — to protect Cady from all physical and emotional dangers — to its logical (and violent) endpoint.

The film had made a splash months earlier with a marketing campaign that left audiences confused as to what kind of movie it really was. Was this a straight horror, a comedy, or something in between? Did the film understand that its prissy, singing and dancing homicidal robot had all the makings of a camp icon, or was this a disaster in the making? It turns out, the movie knows exactly what it is, a slick reinvention of the killer doll movie that doesn’t so much toe the line between silly and scary as dance and twirl all over it. Strong reviews, good word of mouth, and an inescapable online marketing campaign helped put a $12 million scary movie within spitting distance of one of the biggest films of all time. Let’s take a look at the forces that turned "M3GAN" from a potential bomb to potentially one of the biggest horror films of the year.

The January dump

M3GAN looks upward thoughtfully

If expectations for "M3GAN" were low, a big part of that might have been due to its release date. Over the years January has become a dumping ground of sorts for films that the studios don’t have much faith in. Between bad weather keeping moviegoers home, financial belt-tightening after the expensive holiday season, and the last of the December prestige pictures going into wide release, it’s become a truism both in Hollywood and in the wider culture that January is a time when studios can release bombs and stinkers without anyone paying too much attention.

But as with every rule, there are exceptions. In the midst of the January doldrums, Liam Neeson staked out a claim in the 2010s for his particular brand of grizzled thrillers (via RogerEbert.com). And while the month is indeed often the graveyard of dreadful comedies and franchise non-starters, it has also debuted its share of influential and innovative horror films over the years, from Robert Rodriguez’s genre mashup "From Dusk Till Dawn" to the first entries in the "Hostel" and "Cloverfield" series.

Scary kids and killer dolls

M3GAN looks calm in close-up

Befitting the disreputable month of its release, "M3GAN" also sits at the nexus of several horror trends that don’t always have a track record for quality. On its surface, the film belongs squarely in the "killer doll" genre, home of "Annabelle" and the "Child’s Play" series, where children’s playthings have a mind of their own, (usually through supernatural means) and wreak havoc. But M3GAN is not possessed by a malevolent spirit the way Annabelle and Chucky are; her evil is born of microchips, wires, and man’s hubris, which also puts the film in the "killer robot" category. Like the cowboy robots of the original "Westworld," M3GAN obeys her programming to a troubling degree, and like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reformed cyborg in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," she does it all to protect a young child.

But M3GAN is no chubby-faced toddler like Chucky and Annabelle, nor is she really a doll in the same sense. She is built like a preteen, maybe just slightly older than her 9-year-old ward Cady. She walks, she runs, she dances, and she kills, all with the same inscrutable expression; in that way, the film also plays with the "scary kid" trope. At its best, the "scary kid" trope gives us Henry James’ "The Turn of the Screw" and its adaptations like 1961’s "The Innocents" and 2001’s "The Others" (which is not a direct adaptation, but borrows heavily in plot and tone). At worst, scary kids are campy to the point of self-sabotage, as in the endless "Children of the Corn" sequels or the laughable "Orphan."

Talent behind the scenes

M3GAN looks at a blurry array of text and images

Most of the schlocky films that trade in the innate creepiness of a child’s blank stare don’t have what "M3GAN" has: A solid creative team guiding the action. Director Gerard Johnstone cut his comedy-horror teeth on the 2014 New Zealand indie "Housebound," which he also wrote. Screenwriter Akela Cooper, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the hottest names in horror on the strength of her script for 2021’s "Malignant," another surprise hit that pulls off a wild premise with style. She has also contributed scripts to "American Horror Story," "Witches of East End," and the Netflix horror series "Chambers."

But arguably the biggest name behind the scenes of the film is horror maestro James Wan, who produced and co-wrote — and, as the mastermind behind "Dead Silence" and the "Saw" and "Annabelle" series, is no stranger to creepy dolls. Wan, however, is quick to note that this is actually his first killer doll movie. "In my previous doll movies — they don’t kill anyone," he told Deadline in a January 2023 interview. "So I said, I’m going to make a killer doll movie for a brand new generation. Today’s kids didn’t grow up with Chucky like we did."

Talent on camera

Gemma looks concerned in the dark

"M3GAN" was filmed in New Zealand during the summer of 2021. McGraw, as Cady, was just ten years old at the time, but had already racked up an impressive genre film and TV resume, appearing as Florence Pugh’s younger self in the Marvel superhero blockbuster "Black Widow" and as the younger Victoria Pedretti in Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series "The Haunting of Hill House." Fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe alum and stand-up comic Ronny Chieng co-stars as the shortsighted and ultimately doomed CEO of the toy company that manufactures M3GAN, and "Girls" star Allison Williams picks up where she left off in "Get Out" and the 2018 Netflix thriller "The Perfection," earning a reputation for herself as an upscale scream queen.

But the star of any monster movie is, of course, the monster. With her doll-like face and uncanny movements that are graceful, robotic, and feral all at once, fans wondered if M3GAN was real or a CGI creation — a question the production played coy about answering before the film was released. The truth is both more basic and more impressive than a run-of-the-mill CGI creature. M3GAN on screen is performed by a prodigious preteen dancer from New Zealand named Amie Donald, outfitted with a prosthetic mask whose expressions were enhanced by CGI. M3GAN’s creepily soothing voice was provided by former Disney Channel actor Jenna Davis.

Fun and frighetning trailers

M3GAN looks determined

Universal released the first trailer for "M3GAN" in October 2022. The two-and-a-half minute clip leans heavily on the film’s horror and sci-fi elements, using light piano music and heavy booms to drive home the slow-creeping terror of realizing that you have allowed an unstable robot to enter your home and form an emotional attachment to a young girl. As a modern horror trailer, it plays pretty safe, with only a handful of moments that hint that the film may not just be a straight-faced scarefest.

Those few moments — M3GAN’s surprisingly stylish raincoat and sunglasses, plus a taste of the infamous dance scene (more on that to come) — were enough to cue audiences that there was something special, or at least deeply strange going on. The second trailer, released in early December, paid attention to the response garnered by the first and leaned into the madness. It turns out that M3GAN is not just a murdering automaton, but kind of a catty one, serving looks and fatal blows to the head in equal measure.

The Dance

M3GAN dances in an office hallway

More so than either of the official trailers, though, the moment that captured the world’s — or at least the internet’s — attention was a short clip from the film’s climax where M3GAN, in pursuit of Ronny Chieng’s character, pauses in an office hallway to perform an acrobatic, mesmerizing dance to the Skatt Brothers’ 1979 disco rock hit "Walk the Night." Before long, the dance had taken over TikTok and other social media sites, with amateur M3GANs performing their own takes on the killer doll’s moves (and the killer doll’s wardrobe). By January 9, 2023 the hashtag #M3GAN had racked up nearly one billion views, and at the film’s December 7 premiere in Los Angeles, a dance troupe of eight M3GANs performed a red carpet routine to a Taylor Swift song (via Vulture).

The dance was not originally part of the script, however. It was developed on set by Johnstone, Donald, choreographer Jed Brophy, and dance instructor Kylie Norris. In an interview with toofab.com, Johnstone said that he "snuck" the moment into the film "to see if anyone would say anything." He was relieved that the knowingly absurd scene — one of a few musical moments that catch audiences off-guard — was embraced for both its spookiness and its silliness, noting, "It just felt like this is the kind of fun we need." According to the film’s production notes (via Yahoo News), screenwriter Cooper was taken aback when she saw the scene. "I thought, ‘This is so weird, but it works. That makes [Ronny Chieng’s character’s] death all the more uncomfortable.’"

Only in Theaters

Gemma looks at her computer, worried

The film is a co-production by Universal Pictures, Blumhouse Productions, and Wan’s Atomic Monster shingle. In the years since movie theater attendance cratered due to pandemic restrictions, many studios have opted to release films directly to streaming platforms — films that would have received wide theatrical release in, say, 2018 or 2019.

Other studios have attempted to split the difference between preserving the moviegoing experience (and revenue) and the relative safety of streaming by releasing films in both formats at the same time. This is what Universal and Blumhouse have done with several of their most recent pictures; even high-profile films like the 2022 remake of Stephen King’s "Firestarter" or the last two entries of David Gordon Green’s "Halloween" legacyquel trilogy were available to stream on Peacock on the same day they premiered in theaters.

"M3GAN," however, was a different story. According to Deadline, the film was always planned for the big screen; instead of simultaneous theatrical and streaming premiere, Universal gave it a good old-fashioned wide release on over 3,500 screens across the country — a major vote of confidence in this day and age. And in exchange for that vote, the film wildly overperformed on its first weekend, grossing over $35 million in ticket sales when its estimated performance was nearly half that.

Glowing reviews

M3GAN waits calmly in the dark

But can a film really meme itself into boffo box office? Well, yes and no. Certainly the wildfire popularity of the M3GAN dance helped raise the film’s public awareness, and other than "Avatar" there was little competition in the first week of January for either eyeballs or dollars. But it’s also true that the film has received glowing reviews from critics; its Rotten Tomatoes shot straight into "Certified Fresh" territory with near-unanimous praise. Early positive notices may well have brought in skeptical audiences who feared that the film was nothing more than a 20-second viral scene with 100 minutes of fluff around it.

The dance scene may not have been in Cooper’s script, but the tricky tone that allows it to exist alongside grisly death scenes is very much present on the page. This is a film that understands exactly what it is; as critic Katie Rife wrote in her review for RogerEbert.com, "It fills a kiddie pool with ridiculousness and splashes around in it." While it’s more overtly comic than Cooper and Wan’s previous collaboration "Malignant," both films are fully committed to their premises, rooting even the goofiest moments in the emotions and anxieties of the characters. "M3GAN" is a movie about a killer doll, but also about the way technological advances replace the human touch, literally or figuratively, and the pressure that society places on women to be mothers, whether they want to be or not.

A new gay icon

M3GAN stands on a hillside in the woods

"M3GAN" may not just be about a killer doll, but it is still very much about a killer doll — a center-parted psychopath dressed like a Victorian schoolgirl crossed with a 1970s businesswoman. A four-foot menace whose eyes may be fake, but they can still judge everything she sees. A My Size Barbie come to life with an ice-cold demeanor and a sassy mouth. Perhaps not surprisingly, before the movie was even released she was declared a new queer horror icon (via Out). While Cooper attributed the movie’s (and character’s) popularity in the gay community to the film’s themes of found family, others have a more simple and blunt explanation: As one Twitter user put it, "she’s a fashionable, murderous doll that does cute dances and says c**** s***."

As funny a reply as that might be, there are some deeper appeals to M3GAN besides her "camp little dancey dance." Before the film was released, author and academic Joe Vallese spoke to Vox about the character’s imagery and her place in a continuum of "subverted femininity" that includes recent horror villains like The Babadook, the deformed mother living underground in 2022’s "Barbarian," and Octavia Spencer’s eponymous "Ma."

As Vallese sees it, the limitations of sexual expression in a heteronormative society lead many queer people to identify with the characters who are considered monsters. "We think, we can’t be [‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ heroine] Nancy so we’ll be [Freddy Kruger]," he said. "We can’t be Laurie [Strode from ‘Halloween’], then we’re Michael [Myers]."

More M3GAN, please

M3GAN looks concerned in close-up

So what lies ahead for 2023’s first great horror villain? While the film ends fairly definitively for M3GAN herself (at least her robotic body), you can never count a good monster out. After its first successful weekend at the box office, Universal has already begun talks of a sequel. Johnstone, for one, seems excited for the prospect of another visit to the M3GAN-verse, telling Variety, "There are so many ideas that we had and facets of M3GAN’s personality that we wanted to explore. I totally think there’s more to say."

But we may not have to wait for a brand new film to get more M3GAN in our lives. According to Cooper, Universal cut a lot of the violence and gore out of the film in order to secure a PG-13 rating, and an expanded, R-rated (or unrated) edition may be in the works. "No shade to Universal, love them, and I understand that once the trailer went viral, teenagers got involved and you want them to be able to see it," she told the Los Angeles Times (via Deadline) about the decision to release the PG-13 version. "There should be an unrated version at some point. I heard it was on the books." Hopefully we’ll be able to see M3GAN unleash her full bloody power in the future.