Practically every day for the past few weeks, my home has been invaded by uninvited visitors. One night, a little girl showed up who shared a name with my oldest daughter; she roamed my living room on battery-operated roller skates. Then a remote-controlled monster truck shaped like a shark appeared; it tore through the living room with more horsepower than the car I drove in high school. Just a few days ago, our family added two new “pets”: Brightly colored fish that spring to eerie, robotic life when placed into a tank of water.

They’re toys. And during the holiday season, homes like mine fill with strange new amusements, delighting children and perplexing — if not outright infuriating — adults. So while early January is historically not the best time to release a new Hollywood movie, it’s an ideal moment for a film like M3GAN, which turns those quirky, vaguely alive playthings into a cautionary horror story about our collective hunger for distractions from the stress and pain of real life.

Certainly the little girl at M3GAN’s center deserves a break from stress and pain. Nine-year-old orphan Cady (Violet McGraw) gets sent to Seattle to live her with her workaholic aunt Gemma (Allison Williams). Gemma is an inventive and ambitious toy designer. She’s clearly in touch with her inner child, but she never quite got the hang of relating to actual children. When this sullen, traumatized girl shows up at her well-appointed home, Gemma has no idea what to do with her.

She finds an answer in her work. When Cady takes a liking to an old robot that her aunt built in college, Gemma decides to ignore the orders of her obnoxious boss (Ronny Chieng) who just wants her to churn out cheap junk and instead completes an prototype he had already told her to mothball: A life-sized robotic girl who can interact with its owner through a highly advanced artificial brain. The prototype becomes “M3GAN,” a four-foot-tall robotic doll with nearly lifelike skin, wavy golden hair, a chic beige dress, enormous blue eyes, a perky voice, and oh by the way a nigh-indestructible titanium body and the nifty ability to perfectly mimic sounds she hears around her.

You see the pictures of M3GAN in this article and you hear that premise and you immediately think Child’s Play meets The Terminator. And eventually that is what M3GAN becomes. Along the way, though, the script by Akela Cooper (from a story by Cooper and producer James Wan) is a bit wittier than your standard slasher fare. Director Gerard Johnstone has a wicked sense of humor, and until M3GAN’s final few scenes it works less as a horror movie than a very dark comedy about parenting, marketing, and greedy corporations.

The film’s early scenes are punctuated by fake commercials for Gemma’s toys, all of which ring true to the bizarre creatures that have currently taken root in my own kids’ playroom. (None are arguably as weird as the robo-fish that flops around whenever my children submerge it in water.) And Johnstone even has some twisted fun with poor Cady’s horrific backstory, and with Gemma’s eagerness to outsource her parental responsibilities onto M3GAN. The doll’s programming allows her to dispense folksy wisdom, hound her (in a sweet and loving way) about flushing the toilet or washing her hands, and even to sing to her a lullaby when the mood strikes.

Of course, M3GAN — embodied by actress Amie Donald, voiced by Jenna Davis, and seemingly augmented by a fair amount of animatronic special effects — begins to take her role as surrogate caretaker so seriously that she views anyone who upsets Cady’s happiness, even temporarily or for the greater good, as a threat. And when they happens, no one is safe.

The premise of this deranged, homicidal (yet oddly loving) doll is ridiculous, and Cooper and Wan’s story treats it appropriately. They previously collaborated on the 2021 horror film Malignant, a delightfully bizarre thriller about a woman stricken with nightmarish visions of actual murders. The premise was unexceptional but the film’s third-act twists were absolutely bonkers; that movie seemed designed less to make people scream in terror than to shriek with incredulous and sadistic pleasure. In its best moments, like when Cady begins to trust and like M3GAN more than Gemma and demands her doll accompany them on a trip to a new school —  M3GAN achieves a similarly outlandish vibe: Not so much scary as ghoulishly hilarious.

It’s aided tremendously by McGraw and Williams, both of whom are willing to push their characters into abrasive and even unlikable territory, which is key to the success of a dark horror comedy, where the audience must start to root for — or at least not entirely dislike — the “monster” at the story’s center. While M3GAN is clearly destined to turn into an evil killbot right from the get-go, she is also sometimes the film’s most sympathetic character, with her undying loyalty to Cady.

Eventually, M3GAN becomes less of a demented protector and more of a slasher villain, and at that point M3GAN grows more routine and less interesting. Until then, the film is miles better than the junk that typically comes out at this time of year. While most of 2022’s holiday toys are destined to be dumped in storage bins or even the garbage in a matter of weeks, I have feeling M3GAN is going to stick around a lot longer than that.

RATING: 6/10

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