With no fanfare whatsoever, I’m happy to say the At The Foothills of Madness movie review website is back open for business. It’s been over three years since the last entry, and here we are again. COVID put a dent in my movie watching, but it’s not like I wasn’t watching movies during or since. No, I guess I lost my enthusiasm, or at least transferred it to a different medium: since July 2020 I’ve been writing a horror novel that has since ballooned into epic length, with only a faint light at the end of the tunnel as of January 2023. Oh yeah, and also since then I have two horror anthologies on Amazon: HEAL THYSELF (pub. 2021), a three-story anthology featuring the unexpected consequences of time travel, and PLAYLIST vol.1 (pub. 2022), a five-story book where all the stories are titled from songs you may know. But anyway, the reviews are back on tap. I couldn’t die knowing Charlie’s Angels was the last review I ever wrote. And so, with no further ado, welcome back to the site, and I’m glad we’re both here.
I might as well start with an obvious negative: Blumhouse Pictures suck. I mean, I know they produce profit-making, small budget horror, and I know a lot of people like (or at least tolerate) what they make. Me, I can’t stand most of what I’ve seen from them, to the point where my interest in anything they release is on the low floors. This includes Get Out – yeah I said it. Not as much of a fan as everyone else, it appears. So when I saw the crappy trailers (that fucking dance), and heard it was from Blumhouse, I thought I’d even skip it once it hits the streaming services. Does the world really need a variation of Chucky? I know I don’t.
Well, then it was my birthday, and my daughter, who is my horror movie buddy, asked if I’d seen any of the reviews. I could scarcely believe my eyes when I saw how positive they all seemed to be. Fine, I said, let that be my birthday present. Lunch was thrown in too, so why not?
The long history of evil dolls goes way back, further, even, than Living Doll, the entertaining Twilight Zone episode starring Telly Savalas. (I’m Talking Tina, and don’t you piss me off or I’ll do something ba-ad …). Dolls, mannequins – they’re all kinds of creepy. Not many steps so far removed from effigies, when you think about it. From Living Doll, the decades since have had their own evil miniatures, culminating probably most famously in Chucky, the serial-killer-possessed villain of the increasingly camp Child’s Play franchise.
I went in cold, knowing only the basic premise and some weird factoid that the Megan doll is now some kind of icon to the gay community. A doll that looks like a drugged 12 year old girl? To each their own, I guess. We went to The Alamo Drafthouse nearby, and as an aside, this is not my cinema model. Table service and the sounds of eating and slurping is not how I want to watch a movie, but the good thing about Alamo is that it offers a different kind of movie watching experience, essentially being a cult movie watcher’s paradise. Case in point, before the movie and the obligatory handful of trailers, they showed a long reel consisting of evil toy movie clips and TV ads for dolls of the 70s and 80s, which was cool prep for this particular movie.
So what about the movie anyway? I knew I was in for a different kind of Blumhouse experience from the prologue. It’s good, though it’s nothing spectacular, and also quite predictable in how it ends. Two parents and a child (Cady, played by Violet McGraw ) in a car, driving on a snowbound highway in almost white-out conditions. I liked the dialogue, and I was impressed by McGraw throughout – even more so as the movie continued. Fast forward a little while later in time to Cady moving in with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams, from HBO’s Girls), a typical career-minded individual both clueless about how to raise a kid and too self-absorbed to grieve. Gemma is the cliched childless character you’ve seen countless times before, but Williams lends a humanity to character where there appears to be little of it in the script. She’s not just clueless, she knows she’s clueless, and that makes a big difference. With a flash of insight, Gemma realizes that her failed project MEGAN could be resurrected to play babysitter to Cady, and free her up to go on with her career. Faster than Tony Stark solved time-travel in Avengers: Endgame, a new prototype Megan is rolled out to begin her nanny duties. There’s a clear and obvious point made about consigning pesky kids to devices instead of doing the actual work of a parent – I’m not opposed to making that point, but I wish the writers understood the concept of subtlety better: the device substitute is nothing new – it goes all the way back to TV, and maybe earlier, maybe even toys themselves. Thus, Megan is introduced for the second time in the movie. Interestingly, she’s first brought in as a failed demonstration. Only the coldly robotic face is covered up, leaving the mechanics exposed everywhere else, but I thought this was a great scene, especially given that the featureless silicon skin becomes stuck in a lopsided smile highly reminiscent of Alex’s malevolent smirk from A Clockwork Orange. It’s a great piece of foreshadowing the intelligence that we see developing in Megan 2.0 soon after the story gets going.
The story itself is really nothing great. It’s familiar, but watchable thanks to good photography and decent performances from McGraw and Williams (the other human characters range from amateur hour to anonymous). There’s a Karen-neighbour subplot that seems too dumb for the movie, but not completely out of place (again, subtlety would have been good here). But what makes the movie tick in a big way, and what sets it apart from Chucky, is Megan herself. I actually liked her as a character. She’s intelligent (of course), but also seemingly sentient in a way that feels like everybody around her should spend time pondering that, yet they don’t. Maybe it’s a detail the movie didn’t strictly need, but I needed it, dammit, because I was bugged by its absence. The writing around her is good, the character develops interestingly, and the CGI that’s used to animate her face is terrific, full of subtle micro expressions that tells the viewer; you know what, there is something in that robotic head, a slyness and cunning that echoes back to that earlier scene with her bald prototype hoisted on the rig like a marionette. The little details here really brought Megan to life to me, and I started to realize that while I had previously assumed the movie would simply be this cinematic cycle’s Chucky, Megan is actually waaaaaayyy closer to Alex Garland’s terrific Ex Machina than Child’s Play, where the emergence of sentience is the biggest subplot in the movie. Act 2 is pretty strong here, despite a couple of weak moments, with one of the highlights being Megan breaking into a rendition of the Sia/David Guetta hit “Titanium” – it’s fantastically, hilariously cheesy, but is it also a moment of self-awareness where Megan sings it because she knows it’s both cheesy and self-referential? I like to think the latter. Having been impressed by act 2, I will say there’s a piece of visual shorthand that’s as much a trope in modern horror movies as the “superhero landing” is to the MCU: the humanoid character getting down on all fours and running like an animal. It doesn’t make sense in most movies, it makes even less sense here in Megan.
The third and final act doesn’t undo everything in act 2, but it does resort to lazy tropes that are straight from any Terminator movie, but one trope comes out of nowhere and I thought it worked well. You know any Blumhouse-type possession movie where a body starts popping and contorting all creepy like? It happens here, and for the love of God, it actually works well, as a sly visual signature of Blumhouse itself. Unlike Chucky, Megan is not possessed by a tortured spirit, she’s tortured by the rage boiling up inside her at those who want to shut her down. In taking on the aspect of a horror movie monster, she actually ends up becoming the most human she’s ever been to that point. When someone wants to snuff out your lights, wouldn’t you fight back with all the fury inside you? Despite the fact that act 3 turns Megan into a franchise-made robot M.D.O.F.C (Monster Designed Only For Cash), I found a lot to like about her for most of the movie, and a degree of sympathy before she becomes the monster everyone expected. It’s too bad that Megan probably won’t be seen ever again thanks to $100 million (so far) against a $12 million budget. Recommended.
© Andrew Hope, 2023