Slasher dolls and killer robots: 13 movies to watch if you loved M3GAN

Clockwork from left: Chucky in a scene from the film Child’s Play, 1988. (Photo: United Artists/Getty Images); Annabelle Comes Home (Image: Warner Media); Dolly Dearest (Screenshot: Lionsgate/YouTube); Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend (Screenshot: Warner Bros./YouTube); The Boy (Screenshot: STX Entertainment/YouTube)
Graphic: The A.V. Club

Dolls and dummies live so deep in the uncanny valley that horror films have been playing with them since the 1920s. In more recent decades, movies like Child’s Play and Annabelle and the brand new M3GAN have tapped into a mainstream appetite for watching your G.I. Joe get up of its own free will and stab you to death.

To its credit, M3GAN toys with the “killer doll” subgenre, using a sci-fi edge to amplify its commentary on technology and social media providing a facsimile of friendship. If you watched M3GAN and fell in love, this chronological list of doll-themed slashers as well as killer robot movies will tell you where you should head next.

This classic British anthology horror ends with one of the most chilling “living dummy” stories of all time. Maxwell Frere is a ventriloquist with a doll called Hugo on his lap—that is until Hugo meets Maxwell’s American rival and wants to jump ship to join that act instead. The dummy’s high-pitched, sing-song voice starkly contrasts with the threats he makes, and you never truly know whether this is the tale of a master going mad or wood coming to life.

Before Child’s Play and Dead Silence used the paranormal to make dolls freaky, Magic used them as, well … a prop. Directed by future Jurassic Park star Richard Attenborough, the film is a dive into the psyche of mentally ill ventriloquist Corky Withers, played by a fresh-faced Anthony Hopkins, who manifests his most psychotic desires as his dummy, Fats. As it becomes increasingly apparent that Corky can’t control his sidekick, Magic unfolds into a quietly tense and masterfully acted horror-thriller.

Directed and co-written by Jim Wyrnoski—one of exploitation horror’s most prolific names—Chopping Mall is an ideal symbol for the ridiculousness that slasher films reached in the mid-1980s. This story of three robots, designed to protect a shopping mall, short-circuiting and embarking on a killing spree is crammed with overacting, nonsensical plot beats and, of course, gore. However, it’s a bloody good time from the outset—and its VHS cover is beautifully brutal to boot.

Wes Craven couldn’t win with this sci-fi/horror flick. Originally, test audiences were dissatisfied with Deadly Friend, which emphasized a love story over scares. Then, when gallons of blood were added to this tale of a computer whiz using gadgetry to reanimate his comatose neighbor, the studio deemed it too brutal and scaled things back. In the end, though, this is an endearing slice of ’80s cheese, and that basketball kill remains one of the wackiest on film.

The missing link between Gremlins and Child’s Play, Dolls follows a group of six people that stay the night in a mansion only to be harassed by a gaggle of animated toys. With its synthy score and wildly colorful costumes, this is another endearing time capsule from the 1980s, yet its barrage of practical effects is still a wonder to behold. Plus, seeing a troop of tin soldiers actually open fire and kill in cold blood is twistedly hilarious.

When you hear “killer doll,” you think of Chucky. That’s because Child’s Play has evolved into a generation-spanning franchise, initially built around the murderous antics of a killer in a doll’s body before leaning further and further into its own ludicrousness. The first film is essential viewing for its wit and the lore it started, as is Bride Of Chucky for its stab at self-parody and Cult Of Chucky for those kills and creativity.

When 1989’s Puppet Master was denied a theatrical release and instead slashed its way straight into the home video market, nobody could have predicted it would spawn 14 sequels and spin-offs. For three and a half decades, this war band of dummies has refused to die, persisting in a series that’s wavered from marvelous to tasteless. The original is essential watching as a Brothers Quay-ish nightmare, while reboot The Littlest Reich gloriously relishes in B movie odiousness.

It’s easy to dismiss Dolly Dearest as derivative—because it is. The plot follows a young kid dealing with a killer doll à la Child’s Play, while some of the shots and even some of the lines are plucked from The Evil Dead and The Exorcist. However, as much as this late entry into the slasher subgenre’s first wave is a game of “spot the reference,” the film is carried by its inventive practical effects, as well as a taking-this-infinitely-more-seriously-than-needed Rip Torn.

A cash-in on both the Child’s Play and Puppet Master series, Demonic Toys rampages right into “so bad it’s good” territory. Peter Manoogian’s horror comedy follows, of course, a gang of playthings out for blood, yet also throws a plethora of other horror cliches at the wall, such as demonically possessed kids. Hammering the looniness home are the, let’s say, uneven performances, which run the gamut from over-the-top to “I have never given less of a crap.”

Making one puppet scary enough to make you shit yourself clearly didn’t cut it for James Wan and Leigh Whannell. So, the men behind Saw and bicycle-riding Billy reunited for this supernatural horror. Dead Silence follows protagonist Jamie, who returns to his hometown after a puppet arrives at their house and his wife mysteriously dies. Infinitely less blood-drenched than Saw, the film retreats to the classic horror tropes of mansions and possession—and is a rewarding left turn.

Saw and Dead Silence director James Wan yet again dabbled with evil dolls in The Conjuring, which featured Annabelle, a porcelain doll stuffed with the soul of a demon. The character’s creepiness was so intense that she received her own spin-off trilogy, of which Annabelle: Creation is by far the best entry point. Not only is it the most chilling of its series, but it’s a prequel that tells the doll’s story from the very start.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. A nanny arrives at a mansion and quickly gets spooked by a seemingly inanimate doll… Okay, so The Boy’s plot seems as familiar and exciting as gravel. However, despite it being a pretty clear cash-in on the success of The Conjuring and Annabelle, director William Brent Bell eventually subverts the haunted doll subgenre with a twist much more grounded in the horrors of real life.

In an age where AI was (and still is) becoming more everyday than ever, director Lars Klevberg pushed the reset button on Child’s Play. His reimagining cast an ever-charismatic Mark Hamill as the new Chucky: a high-tech doll that’s tampered with, then grows self-aware and murderous. The lack of the original’s Brad Dourif and voodoo silliness made this a controversial redo, but it’s still a chilling thought experiment on those robots you’re letting into your house.

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Matt Mills