What’s inherently creepy about killer-doll movies is the capability of evil deeds from something that seems not only inanimate but also completely innocent. As the latest addition to this horror subgenre, M3GAN taps into that fear but also digs deeper into another one — the horror of losing control over inventions we’ve designed to help kids navigate the world. While it plumbs dark depths within a more plausible reality than those of most films in its ilk, it still delivers plenty of pulpy, surface-level thrills.

Unlike most deadly doll films, M3GAN takes place in a world where toys can be terrifying thanks to technology rather than curses or possessions. It opens with the reveal of a Furby-like creature called a Purrpetual Pet, which serves as a babysitter to young Cady (Violet McGraw) while her parents argue on the way to a family vacation destination. The tempestuous trip gives way to tragedy, and Cady quickly finds herself in the custody of her aunt, Gemma (Allison Williams), the roboticist behind the Purrpetual Pet technology.

Cady enters Gemma’s life just when she’s on the verge of a breakthrough invention — an AI companion named M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android). This life-sized doll (physically played through motion-capture by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis) pairs with its primary user to connect with them on the most personal level possible. In fact, she ends up taking Gemma’s role in guiding Cady through a response of grief.

Rather than joining Cady through this rough stage of childhood, Gemma puts M3GAN in front of her as many parents would place a tablet in their kids’ hands. And like many of today’s devices, M3GAN serves as teacher, friend and virtual caregiver. She can do everything from spewing science facts and reminding Cady to wash her hands to comforting Cady when she’s sad.

As an actual child therapist warns Gemma later in the film, M3GAN is so perfectly programmed that children may depend on her more than their human support system — a concern that echoes through the screen and into the real world.

Akela Cooper’s script (from a story co-credited to her Malignant collaborator James Wan) raises many interesting issues but it doesn’t pretend to be “elevated horror.” As she inevitably grows corrupt, M3GAN wreaks havoc in gruesome, outlandish ways that give the Child’s Play franchise a run for its money. Blood spills, appendages fly, robots fight. But director Gerard Johnstone maintains a masterful slow burn, making us wait patiently for these over-the-top popcorn moments.

All the while, Williams and McGraw ground the film in an emotional reality that keeps you gripping your armrest even during the most absurd sequences.

Instead of bringing the typical, herky-jerky physicality expected of most robotic characters, Donald gives M3GAN’s movements a surreal fluidity. Davis brings the artificial sweetness of a high-school mean girl to her voice.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Johnstone noted that M3GAN’s design is modeled after 1950s screen icons like Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak, thus fitting the largely retro aesthetic of most Blumhouse productions. Her quaint look makes her cruel nature all the creepier.

Who knows whether the character of M3GAN will become as iconic as Chucky from Child’s Play or the Conjuring universe’s Annabelle? All I know is that this film ranks high among the best of its predecessors with its thoughtful exploration of timely themes and effective execution of creative scares.