Indonesian horror flick ‘The Doll’ is a cliché, yet impressively-nasty ‘Annabelle’ ripoff
A review of the 2016 film, on Netflix now
A couple of months ago, right around the time Netflix dropped their Sabrina the Teenage Witch update, they also released a new horror film from Indonesian director Rocky Soraya, called simply Sabrina. The film’s description mentioned that it was “third in the ‘Doll’ films.” I’m someone who can’t just jump into a series willy-nilly, and Netflix didn’t have the first two in whatever “the Doll films” were, so even though it kept coming up whenever I was trying to make it through The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, I ignored it. A few days ago, though, Netflix finally added Rocky Soraya’s first forays into possessed-doll horror, The Doll and The Doll 2, to their collection. I’m at home sick today, and Netflix’s Fyre Fraud competitor isn’t out until tomorrow, so I figured I would curl up on the couch and see if The Doll is just as much of a Conjuring/Annabelle ripoff as it first appeared to be.
And it turns out: Yes, yes it is.
By this point, the story of Annabelle the haunted doll is familiar to millions of people. What was originally a Raggedy Ann became a now-iconic creepy little weirdo in James Wan’s Conjuring series and the resulting Annabelle spinoffs; her pranks both mischievous and murderous have raked in serious piles of cash since she debuted in 2013. She even makes a cameo in Aquaman! It makes sense that other filmmakers would want a piece of the action. There are, after all, always knockoffs of popular films. (I’ll never forget my hapless high school German teacher telling us he rented Transformers and spent the whole movie wondering when Megan Fox was going to show up, only to find when he re-examined the Blockbuster box that he’d actually grabbed Transmorphers).
Often, though, those movies don’t pretend to be anything but quick cash-grabs of their more recognizable counterparts. The Doll is different enough that it could have just been its own thing, but instead it pilfers its structure, various story beats, and scare concepts from the much-better Conjuring films, before finding its footing and ending in a blood-soaked, cacophonous, impressively-nasty climax.
The basic plot of The Doll is original enough. After Daniel receives a promotion at work, he and his wife Anya move to a bigger house and settle into their new, happy lives. Anya is a doll-maker, and Daniel works construction. One day, the creepy doll he and his coworkers found at the construction site finds its way into his car and comes home with him; soon, mysterious sounds and smells fill the home, and Anya goes wild with paranoia at the thought of a ghostly girl haunting her house.
The titular doll’s design is serviceably good; unlike the film version of Annabelle, which is difficult to imagine any child not being anything but creeped out by, The Doll’s doll is right on the line between believably-innocent and clearly-possessed. Homegirl looks like she started out normal enough, but has been through. it. As Anya says, “you just need to clean her up” and she could be perfectly lovable.
The film sets up a fun duality between Anya and her neighbor across the street, Niken, who believes in “the other world.” Niken recognizes the doll when she visits Anya, and she tells her that the doll was once owned by a girl named Uci who was murdered during a robbery. The doll was hung in the tree to pacify Uci’s spirit, and locals would pray for her every time they drove past. Now that the tree is gone, thanks to Daniel, Uci is angry and wants revenge.
All of that could make for an original-enough, fun-enough horror movie. Instead, The Doll pads its runtime with supernatural shenanigans lifted right out of The Conjuring. Niken’s daughter, for example, loves playing hide-and-seek; instead of clapping so her mother has a chance of finding her, like in The Conjuring, she rings a bell. Sure enough, the bell gets rung when the girl’s not around. Spoooooky! The doll plays hide-and-seek too, leaving crayon-scrawled notes around the house just like it does in the other franchise. There are ghosts who crouch on top of dressers and then leap on top of people when they’re noticed just like in The Conjuring; there is a husband-wife paranormal investigator team who help with the doll in the film’s opening prologue; at the end, when the woman paranormal investigator, who’s the medium just like Vera Farmiga was, reveals that her husband is dead, we’re introduced to the room in her house where she keeps evil paranormal artifacts from their cases. The paranormal investigator woman even has a daughter, and the ghost even distracts the paranormal investigator woman by threatening the daughter’s safety from miles away. It’s all very familiar.
But then, after it gets all of that out of its system, the third act of the movie is actually a ton of fun. The Conjuring stuff is just prelude to a seriously deranged finale, and the lengths the film goes in its final ~40 minutes make all the eyeroll-worthy stuff that precedes its climax worthwhile. When it finally kicks into high gear, it doesn’t let up.
Uci decides to stop playing with the doll and gets down to the business of getting her revenge, and she is ruthless. Imagine if the ghost from The Conjuring had actually possessed the mother, who then proceeded to slaughter her entire family with gory, gruesome, blood-drenched glee. (Mild spoilers for The Conjuring, I guess, that that doesn’t happen). Unlike the more slow, somber American films it’s based on, The Doll doesn’t see a need to keep its scares more cerebral. Sure, bumps in the night are creepy, and The Doll has plenty of those, but also scary are stabbings and throat-slittings and decapitations and clouds of evil CGI bats. I won’t spoil who lives and who dies, but the film has an impressively-high body count for such a relatively-small cast.
Now that I’ve seen this first “Doll” film, I’m interested to see where the franchise goes from here. Hopefully, now that Soraya has made somewhat of a name for himself (enough to have the third movie in his franchise be bankrolled by Netflix, anyway), the following installments ease up on the copycatting and deliver more of the gross-out, bloody thrills of The Doll’s final act. There’s something here worthwhile, and Soraya clearly has a glimmer of talent; I hope he doesn’t keep aping other, better movies when he could be doing something original.