M3GAN horror movie review

Old school plot meets 2020s world. Universal and Blumhouse’s M3GAN sets the bar high for 2023 horror movies. Solidly written, this horror movie proves that some ideas and themes are simply timeless! M3GAN can be read as a cautionary tale of the terrors of technology. Moreover, a closer reading reveals that it also concerns itself with an exploration of the responses to grief, sudden life change, and fears of parenting. While the movie takes itself seriously, the conflict and violence is done for laughs–and it certainly delivers both chilling and laughable moments! I can easily see it becoming a house at a future Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando and Hollywood.

A robotics engineer at a toy company builds a life-like doll that begins to take on a life of its own. Short synopsis, but that’s pretty much it. Simple, yet effective storytelling.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, horror/sci-fi movies were often about the dangers of technology. Ultimately, it can be boiled down to fear of the unknown, but this exploration of when technology rebels against its creator is a premise that remains timeless as technology is always changing. Back in the early to mid 20th century, it was robots; and here we are in the 21st century, and it’s still robots (well, more accurately androids or AI). The possibility of intelligent robots turning on us has always stoked fear because of the loss of control. Even in Terminator and Terminator 2, we witness the attempt to wipe out humanity. I appreciate this movie’s premise and themes for taking direct inspiration from and paying homage to all the horror-scifi movies to comes before it that fall within this subgenre of horror.

M3GAN reminds me of a feature length episode of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone. Written by Akela Cooper (writer of Malignant), the pacing and structure are lean and never lag; however, there are elements of the story (provided by James Wan) that should have been better developed. These shortcomings do not significantly impact the movie’s immense enjoyment factor. Where the film most noticeably struggles is in the direction by relatively new director Gerard Johnstone. That’s not to say that it’s poorly directed–not at all–but had the directing been stronger, the performative dimension would have benefitted. Still, I’m eager to continue to follow Johnstone as he develops as a director.

Universal and Blumhouse take the terror of a killer android and place it within a child’s toy. Again, this isn’t new, but it is a new approach to the Talkie Tina episode of The Twilight Zone or Child’s Play. Much like Black Mirror was a better Twilight Zone than Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone remake, M3GAN may be a better Child’s Play than the remake/reboot of Child’s Play from 2019. I haven’t rewatched the Child’s Play remake since it released, so I will be careful not to presume M3GAN to be better. But my gut reaction is that I enjoyed this movie more than the quintessential killer doll legacy property.

Beneath the outside/action plot of the self-aware killer robot, are themes of grief/loss and parenting fears. After Katie loses her parents in a tragic car accident, she is placed under the guardianship of her (moderately) estranged aunt Gemma whom is an engineer for a Funko-like toy company (in the movie, the toy company is named Funki). Clearly, Katie’s aunt is uninterested in being a parent–she wasn’t even interested in being an aunt–but Katie has nowhere else to go except to her father’s weird family in Jacksonville, FL. So Gemma reluctantly becomes her guardian. Where the film is particularly fascinating, in the area of commentary on parenting in the 2020s, is Gema and Katie’s interactions (or lack thereof) with one another.

Gemma takes an analytical approach to parenting by identifying logistical problems and providing measurable solutions. When Katie doesn’t respond as anticipated, Gemma is at a loss as to what to do. Gemma lacks the empathy and emotive responses that a parent (biological or adopted) needs to exhibit when rearing a child. Gemma’s life plan was abruptly interrupted and introduced to dynamics over which she had little control. In her desire to control, she builds M3GAN as both a groundbreaking toy and as a surrogate parent-like figure in Katie’s life. Through the events of the movie, Gemma learns that there is more to being a parent than providing food, shelter, clothing, and companionship. Furthermore, this serves as a cautionary tale of parents turning child rearing and education over to technology. Without human empathy, critical thinking, and intuition, a child’s cognitive and social development may be warped.

The other area on which this horror movie provides commentary is on grief/loss. Not a new theme in horror movies, it is explored in a new way in M3GAN. Katie suffers the worst loss a child can: the death of both parents. Because of the lack of real empathy and emotive care from aunt Gemma, Katie forms an unhealthy attachment to M3GAN. Because Gemma and Katie never talk about what happened (and the therapist is pretty much useless), Katie never goes through all the stages of grief and therefore never processes (to what extent a child can) the tragedy and how to move forward. M3GAN provides that which is (and should be) provided by parents and friends, but as the events of the movie unfold, we learn just how dangerous that attachment can be for Katie and those around her.

While the writing is mostly strong (save a couple of setups that aren’t followed through in a substantive way), the direction is weak in places. Over all, fairly well directed. But the performative dimension is where the movie struggles. Even though some of the characters are more-or-less caricatures of types of people we have in our lives, there are several scenes in which the performances aren’t campy enough to be funny nor are they realistic enough to be taken more seriously. Some performances fall somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it’s a casting issue, but this is where a director needs to be strong enough to get the appropriate performance out of the actor.

For those that are so often worried about a horror movie with a PG-13 rating (a sentiment that I’ve never understood), rest assured that M3GAN is wildly entertaining and, yes, you still get some fun kills and bone-chilling scenes. That said, I imagine that there will be an unrated or R-rated release of the movie on BluRay. If this movie is an indicator of that we are to expect from 2023 horror, it may be a banner year! Only time will tell, but regardless, it is one that horror fans are sure to enjoy!

Don’t wait for M3GAN to his Peacock or Prime, if you’re a horror fan, then you want to see it on the big screen! You’re definitely in for a wild ride that will have you jumping and laughing.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie Critics of America. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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“Black Christmas” (2019) Horror Movie Review

The gift of the season too horrible for even Scrooge, pre-visits from the Christmas spirits. It’s pretty much a horror movie that Krampus gives away because it is so horrifyingly bad. Last year, I watched for the first time and reviewed the Bob Clarks’ cult classic Black Christmas (1974), and found it to be an outstanding horror film. Then I watched the 2006 remake and thought that no remake could be as bad as that one. I. Was. Wrong. Enter: Black Christmas (2019). This movie is a prime example of bludgeoning the audience with a message/agenda 2×4 with a complete disregard of proper storytelling. Gone is the terrifying atmosphere of the original or schlockyness of the remake. All that we have here is a post-modern sexist message of hate full of one-dimensional characters. To say that there is a plot–even a bad one–is a vast overstatement. This movie is neither entertaining nor empowering. If you watch it, you will ask yourself what Jason Blum and Universal Pictures thinking. I suppose they are thinking of a potential house at Halloween Horror Nights 30 next year. And on that note, I agree that this movie will translate to a fun HHN30 house. But that’s pretty much it.

There is ZERO subtext, no nuance, no likable characters, and when it takes a supernatural turn, you will sit back with your eyes rolling around. And let’s address the PG-13 rating. Had this been rated R, then the kills would have at least been a little better, as they are, they lack anything memorable. A horror film, like this one, rated PG-13 simply works against it from the onset, not to mention the travesty the (if you can call it this) story is. This movie does the title Black Christmas harm. If for no other reason, perhaps the good thing to come out of this one is that horror fans will seek out the original! This movie’s heavy-handed cash grab and irreverent treatment of the #MeToo movement is offensive in and of itself. How can anyone take the movement seriously when movies like this perpetuate an obnoxious caricature of it??? Speaking of perpetuating negative development, this movie also preaches a sermon of post-modern sexism in which women can say anything about and do anything to a man simply because he is a man. However, if a movie like this were made that gender swapped the characters, then it would be protested to the highest degree.

I’m not here to negatively critique this movie because I dislike the agenda-driven message, but I am here to provide a review of a poorly written and directed movie. Being a cis gay male, I often identify with female characters, but I couldn’t connect to any one of these women. As far as acting, it’s par for the course for a bad horror movie. To call this movie a slasher, is disrespectful to the genre. It is not a slasher. Had this movie stuck to the original plot, but brought it into the 21st century, then I think it could have actually been pretty good. Such a great opportunity to play around with an iconic property. In terms of the representation of women, horror has always been on the forefront, a pioneer in writing strong female characters that are brave, smart, vulnerable, and cunning all at the same time. So I am not sure why this movie felt the need to preach strong female characters. Hello! The term “final girl” is derived from horror films. Where this film could have been clever is to subvert our expectations and have a “final boy” and female villain instead, if it truly wanted to flip this property on its head. The female empowerment message could have easily come from that setup. A female slasher killing off frat guys that mistreat their girlfriends or hookups. That already sounds better.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“MA” Horror Movie Review

A delightfully disturbing and thought-provoking Carrie meets Misery horror movie. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer delivers an outstanding performance; however, the movie is unfortunately hampered by a weak screenplay with flat characters. In short, the reason to watch this movie is for the terrifying performance by Spencer, solid world-building, and commentary on high school bullying and teen sexual assault. Tonally, MA is a throwback to 70s and 80s slasher horror complete with the slow-burn windup, off-beat comedic schticks, and a descent into gnarly violence. Not all the kills cause you to wince as the screen holds your eyes hostage in the pleasurable unpleasure, one of the kills will leave you cheering–no seriously, it will. Built upon the premise of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children, the screenplay does not hold back when taking us to some very dark places that fester with anger, fear, and resentment. With so much going for it, it’s unfortunate that the movie suffers from on-the-nose dialogue, leaving little room for subtext. Furthermore, most of the characters lack significant dimension that could have propped up this movie. Some interesting relationship dynamics and backstory are touched on, but never followed through in a meaningful way. While Spencer is truly the glue holding this movie together, there are some highlights worth discussing.

A lonely middle-aged woman befriends some teenagers and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as Ma’s hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, what began as a teenage dream turns into a terrorizing nightmare, and Ma’s place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth. (IMDb)

While most of the characters lack any true dimension (except Ma), the ensemble cast is comprised of some highly relatable characters. At the forefront of the cast is our title character of Sue Ann (or Ma). If you are coming to this movie as a single individual over 30, then you will likely identify with her by empathizing with her backstory and understanding what it’s like to feel that life is a parade passing as you wave it by. Furthermore, Sue Ann suffered repeated bullying, rejection, and even teen sexual assault that left a lasting psychological trauma. Or maybe you are the former popular high school Erica who moved away from her jerkwater town to Los Angeles, lived a wealthy life, just to wind up a divorcee and back in your hometown as a cocktail waitress. Perhaps you are the new girl at school Maggie, who grew up in Los Angeles but now is back in dismal Ohio during your junior or senior year of high school because your dad left your mom (Erica) for another woman. You could be the Regina of your group of friends, the dude bro, or the all American boy with a touch of geek. Whatever your high school experience or how it affected your adulthood, there is likely a character with whom you can identify.

Although the film could have commented more on the PTSD associated with high school bullying in a more meaningful way, and derived even more horror from it, it does serve as an exploration of the real, lasting effects on the psyche. A brief character analysis of Sue Ann reveals someone who is trying to capture that which evaded her in high school: the parties, the romance, the care-free friends. Because of the abominable treatment of Sue Ann by many of her classmates in high school, she suffered a trauma that mitigated her ability to socialize properly and psychologically mature. Therefore, as she grew older, she was constantly reminded of that which she could not experience in high school. So, when she saw a moment to reconnect with her youthful self in being needed by the group of teens outside of the gas station to buy alcohol, she seized the opportunity. Of course, the fact that our all American boy Andy is the son of the guy she crushed on in high school, definitely helped her make the decision to help. Unfortunately, her high school crush was responsible for the sexual assault she endured. A sin for which both father and son would pay. It doesn’t take long for the teens to see the cracks in Sue Ann’s fragile veneer. While the teens enjoyed Sue Ann’s party house and the charismatic Ma, things were fine. When they rejected her, things took a grave turn for the worst. And just like that, she was reminded of the torment from their parents in high school and began to plot her revenge on both the teens and their parents. In this respect, she is a little like Freddy Krueger because in A Nightmare on Elm Street we have the concept of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children.

If you went or are going into Ma with the desire to see a terrifying horror movie from start to finish, then I need to warn you that this is a slow burn horror movie. Not, that slow burn is without its intrigue and suspense, after all, this is where the world and relationship building happens. However, this movie does not reach its horror status until the third act. But once the horror hits, it hits hard–gnarly even. Even the kills/tortures that you saw in the trailer still pack a powerful punch. Most of kills are nightmarishly real. Very little visual effects here; you get the benefit of some highly authentic practical effects. Yes, even the lip sewing scene. Probably one of the most disturbing torture and kills involves animal blood; this moment is nice homage to both Misery and Carrie, but not a copy of either. There is a poetry to the tortures and kills. No one is targeted out of sheer happenstance, but targeted because of whom or what they represent. The sins by which Sue Ann judges the teens or parents are directly connect to or represented in the manner in which they meet their demise. More than the creativity in the actions of Sue Ann, the reasons why she feels the way she does are the most interesting. Even though we should be disgusted at the actions of Sue Ann, we cannot help but empathize with her because of her troubled history and past trauma. She wants what any of us want: to love, have our love returned, and be accepted.

Is it a great horror movie? No. But is is a solidly good one? Yes. If for no other reason, you watch Ma for the outstanding performance by Octavia Spencer! She is absolutely captivating and will leave you with many WTF moments. Interestingly, this is not Spencer’s first time in a horror movie; she was in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. I hope that we get to see her in more horror movies in the future because she did such a fantastic job with this one. If you’re looking for a fun, popcorn horror movie that–to its credit–does have some thought-provoking content, then you’ll enjoy Ma.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Us” full horror film review

The high speed hype train begins to slow down. Returning to horror once again, Writer-Director Jordan Peele’s Us hits theatres nationwide this weekend. The highly anticipated followup to the horror masterpiece Get Out ultimately falls short of the bar set by its predecessor. But don’t worry, there is still plenty to like about this intense film. Whereas Get Out was a horror film built upon compelling, thoughtful social-commentary on the uncredited, forced appropriation of one ethnic group by another, Us plays as a straight forward horror film, complete with all the thrills for which you hope to experience. There is certainly an attempt by Peele to comment on class, MAGA, and other important social topics, but the film tries to do too much, and winds up not accomplishing what it so desperately wants to do. Keep your eyes peeled for details, because you are going to need them in order to best appreciate the ending. With Peele’s revival of The Twilight Zone, it is clear that his adoration of that series (which is regarded as the best written series of all time by the WGA) played a roll in the development of Us. Specifically, this movie feels inspired by the After Hours and Mirror Image episodes. Peele delivers audiences an incredibly fun horror movie that is certain to do well over its run in the cinemas. Many of the film’s elements work exceptionally well; but unfortunately, the film is held back from its full potential by weak writing and average directing. Even though Peele’s Get Out, in my opinion, is the superior film, there is still a lot to enjoy in Us. I’ve no doubt that if you’re a horror fan, that you will have a great time! Let Us cut deeper into this film.

IMDb summary. Accompanied by her husband, son and daughter, Adelaide Wilson returns to the beachfront home where she grew up as a child. Haunted by a traumatic experience from the past, Adelaide grows increasingly concerned that something bad is going to happen. Her worst fears soon become a reality when four  strangers descend upon the house, forcing the Wilsons into a fight for survival. The family is horrified to learn that each attacker takes the appearance of one of them,

My biggest takeaway from this movie is that I am convinced more than ever than Jordan Peele should be able to pull off a successful, meaningful revival of The Twilight Zone. The problem with the writing and directing in Us is that it tried to do too much. In an effort to create a deep, rich, cinematic experience that was both horrifying and thought-provoking, the plot is all over the place. Even to the point that it contradicts itself. It’s as if the idea for this movie began as one of the episodes of the upcoming Twilight Zone revival but Peele decided that he wanted to turn it into a feature length movie. Evidence of this can be found in the similarities it shares with the aforementioned After Hours and Mirror Image episode. There are enough differences that it is clearly not an adaptation of the episode, but I can see how it inspired this movie. Further evidence can be witnessed in that it’s produced, written, and directed by Peele. When a storyteller wears that many hats, there is little room for checks and balances. Us feels like a feature length horror movie that would’ve been better off as a half hour or hour long installment in an anthology series. Starting off moderately strong, then very strong in the second act, the third act feels like it was from another movie idea altogether and forced to fit into this one. Too many ideas. All good individually, but convolute the plot when mashed together. The plot is too complex. What Us tries to do is ultimately too vast for what this movie is capable of delivering to audiences.

Without getting into spoilers, I’d like to visit why the plot doesn’t work as well as it demonstrably shows it had the potential to have worked. We are clearly explained a particular relationship as having a one-way transference; however, there is a plot twist that completely contradicts this relationship. A best practice of screenwriting is to not introduce significantly new material, in the third act, that directly affects the present plot, which was not foreshadowed or setup in the previous two acts; this movie introduces lots of new plot elements in the third act that further complicate versus tying up. For most of the movie, the plot lives in a believable reality, but then it takes a turn that takes it from something terrifyingly possible to nearly unbelievable. And the power of a movie such as this is that it feels possible within the world that’s created on screen. If the characters are making a statement, they run out of people to receive that statement through the course of events. Perhaps if there was a greater supernatural element in the screenplay that it would have worked much better, because the supernatural could have explained how and why much better than the science-fiction approach. What is lacking here is a singular vision.

Now that I have gotten all the things that I didn’t care for out of the way, I want to finish this article with what works brilliantly! The performances are outstanding, the score is excellent, and even the cinematography is noteworthy. Of all the stellar performances, Lupita’s is the one that stood out to me the most. As an Oscar winner, I expect her to deliver an impeccable performance, and she does precisely that! I felt what she was feeling, I empathized with her greatly, and she held my attention for the duration of the movie. I’m careful not to project an Oscar nom out of this because I thought Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary was Oscar and Golden Globe worthy, and we all know what happened with that. Love this score! The classic orchestral approach fit this movie exceptionally well. The score worked so well that it almost felt like a character in and of itself. A well-composed score should be a diegetic extension of the story, the emotional beats, and action; and this one is all those things! Cinematography should never be overlooked as greatly contributing to how a story is being told. It is the element that places us in objective or subjective points of view or prompts us to interpret a scene in a particular way. There are some beautiful shots in this movie that are framed with precision. All throughout the movie, the cinematography plays a strong role in crafting the full experience of Us.

Regardless if you like or love this movie, you are definitely in for a fun time! Perhaps I have issues with the writing and directing (two important elements in the crafting of a movie) but I still enjoyed myself and am confident that you will too. I don’t think it will become a classic in the way that Get Out will be one day, but it’s one to watch anyhow. Lots of great concepts here, but Peele doesn’t strongly deliver any one of them.

You can join Ryan at the cinema most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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