Steven C. Miller’s Margaux is what happens when Disney’s Smart House turns nasty—well, nastier. Miller’s recently taken a hiatus from scary storytelling in favor of lawbreaker action thrillers, but Margaux shows no genre rust. As a fan of titles like 2012’s Silent Night remake, mature kiddie thriller Under the Bed and breakneck The Aggression Scale, I was pleased to see the same Miller bring his nastier horror sensibilities to a sleepover-silly A.I. slasher. It’s what Miller does best, spotlighting his genre adoration through blackened humor and hyper-intense violence. Margaux is younger adult horror with an edgier attitude and pops of twisted comedy, which helps distract from digital effects that look like they might actually be from 1999’s Smart House.
Writers Chris Beyrooty and Nick Waters establish their futuristic getaway like many before: College friends escape campus for a one-last-time vacation. Coder wiz Hannah (Madison Pettis), pretty boy athlete Drew (Jedidiah Goodacre), snappy influencer Lexi (Vanessa Morgan), stoner Clay (Richard Harmon) and sexually-charged couple Kayla (Phoebe Miu) and Devon (Jordan Buhat) celebrate their impending graduation by reliving freshman year once more. Drew rents a smart house with unparalleled artificial intelligence for their stay, which introduces itself as Margaux. Everyone’s enamored by what Margaux can accomplish—the house is described as a 3-D printer—except for Hannah. Something doesn’t feel right, as her friends allow Margaux access to their entire online presences through the house’s app.
Margaux addresses serious contemporary cyber issues, including data privacy breaches, social media vapidity and the Skynet dilemma of A.I. learning from human impulses. Hannah is the untrusting computer genius who refuses to let Margaux in, creates firewalls and is the dissenting voice among her crew when Margaux starts shattering safety barriers. It’s a proper base to establish tension, as most of us blindly accept online advancements without considering their Trojan horse ramifications. Miller glorifies Margaux’s flashier qualities, like materializing delicious meals with a button push or robotic arms that prepare margaritas, only to hide the more nefarious nature of data mining behind the scenes. It’s still a seedier slasher—as made evident by a gruesome opening massage chair death—but gets its kicks by taking shots at society’s apathy towards granting billionaires access to our private internet activity.
Miller nails the tone of Beyrooty and Waters’ screenplay, turning Margaux into a character beyond your standard automaton coldness. Siri voice actress Susan Bennett underlines Margaux’s extreme hospitality with try-hard unease by borrowing her victims’ vocabulary and mannerisms—imagine a computer saying things like “let’s get crunk”—but then flips this callously catty switch into serial killer mode when bodies start piling. Drew, Hannah and Lexi scamper around Margaux’s interior covered in blood, dodging spontaneously generated obstacles, all while Margaux cracks jokes about dead friends or breathes heavy sighs of exasperation. It’s delightfully bonkers. Margaux’s string of failed murder attempts on resident smokestack Clay is the best representation of such goofiness, as the blitzed buffoon lucks his way out of a few blatant assassinations before Margaux’s façade drops—”oh, just drink the ***** water,” she demands, knowing Clay’s not sober enough to realize it’s acid.
Margaux is at its best when taken as seriously as Bing.com, which is to say not very seriously at all. Pettis delivers action heroine lines about decidedly non-badass hacker actions, Goodacre plays an aloof sidekick with a panicked brevity that works and Miu and Buhat’s legendarily horniness somehow doesn’t get old. Morgan is an A+ choice for the desensitized social media superstar who, even in the face of death, has her Instagram sponsors on her mind. The character models are basic—Harmon is solid, yet no different from Fran Kranz in Cabin in the Woods—but fully aware of their assignments. Miller protects his cast from becoming too forgettably familiar or abrasively annoying, whether by funnily emphasizing his college-bred caricatures or calling upon tethered performances that understand the horrors of Jordan Peele’s Us.
Although there’s an unfinished nature to its digital effects that are a bit disappointing—purely budgetary, I’d presume—Margaux doesn’t shy from its ambitions, from metallic Doc Ock tentacles to 3-D printing explained by a milky liquid Margaux oozes out of grates and into drains. This allows for infinite smart-house-of-horrors possibilities, but also comes across as so-so animation. What doesn’t exist on set feels oddly out of place: The cloudy artificial goo puddles feel like they’re from The Secret World of Alex Mack; Margaux’s weaponized appendages are cartoonishly glossy. It’s a shame, because Miller’s overseen countless practical effects showcases, and this much gloopy animation feels far below what he’s capable of.
Still, Margaux is far more deranged and enjoyable than the last paragraph suggests. Miller brings shotgun blasts of obscene violence into an overpowered smart house with a murderous core processor. Beyrooty and Waters instigate conversations about the futility of binary programming versus human complexities while also taking the time to throw in low-hanging hormonal party gags that cut the technological doom-and-gloom with sarcasm. Margaux stumbles somewhat in the final act and isn’t the prettiest virtually rendered showcase, yet its filmmaker understands how to keep audiences snickering and cackling. Attitude is everything, and Margaux has encrypted repositories to spare.
Director: Steven C. Miller
Writer: Chris Beyrooty, Nick Waters
Starring: Madison Pettis, Vanessa Morgan, Richard Harmon, Lochlyn Munro, Jedidiah Goodacre, Phoebe Miu, Jordan Buhat, Brittany Mitchell, Louis Lay
Release Date: September 9, 2022
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.