Scrolling through Netflix horror movies, Sabrina looks like yet another film about a haunted doll — a really creepy one (those eyes!), but another in a long tradition. Yet the movie has its twists; along with echoing Annabelle, the Indonesian horror film also evokes the couple-hunting-demons dynamic of The Conjuring, and in its best moments, piercing the cultural particulars of the setting, serves as a horror version of Crazy Rich Asians.
Sabrina is actually the third instalment in The Doll franchise, which follows a psychic named Laras (Sara Wijayanto). Netflix isn’t advertising that because previous viewing isn’t required — but apparently there’s a booming market for psychics in the franchise’s version of Indonesia, as Laras keeps getting called to investigate dolls possessed by evil entities.
After a creepy opening involving a man searching for his wife (who he eventually finds suspended mid-air outside the house), Sabrina picks up with Maira (Luna Maya), previously seen in The Doll 2, in which the loss of her husband and only child led her to communicate with the spirit that ended up possessing the first version of the Sabrina doll. She is now married to another businessman and toymaker, Aiden (Christian Sugiono), who is launching version two of the Sabrina doll.
Together they’re caring for Aiden’s niece Vanya (Richelle Georgette Skornicki) after the loss of her parents. In her grief, Vanya is convinced by a classmate to play the Charlie Charlie challenge to try and summon her mother’s spirit. Of course, something goes wrong and an evil entity enters our world and threatens the family. While the use of the Charlie Charlie game gives Sabrina a modern edge that teenagers will instantly recognize, it already makes the movie a bit of a throwback.
The first half-hour of Sabrina makes you forget all about that Raggedy Ann doll, as director Rocky Soraya takes full advantage of both modern technology and the socioeconomic status of the main family to give us new twists on tired tropes. This is no run-down home being haunted; instead, we’re navigating the luxurious house of an affluent family and a small troop of maids. There are no dark halls, no dusty attics, but lit and spacious rooms used to bring jump scares in unexpected ways, even if they still fall into following horror clichés.
The best thing about the film is how it shows Vanya using an “entity Detector” on her iPad to look for what she thinks is her mother. Who needs an entire team of paranormal investigators when there’s an app for that? Like the motion tracker in Aliens, the iPad is used to build anticipation of the horrors that are slowly approaching — or in this case quickly jumping at you.
Sabrina pays homage to James Wan not only in its story, but in the way director Rocky Soraya uses gliding steadicam shots to create a feeling of uneasiness. Soraya chooses early on not to focus on Vanya’s quest to reconnect with her dead mother, but on continuing Maira’s story, and depicting how she reacts to the entity now living in their home. Luna Maya does a good job in showing the love and sympathy Maira feels for Vanya, as she quickly recognizes what’s actually happening. And of course, Sabrina will haunt you for days thanks to an eerily effective production design — if Netflix can put this movie in front of enough people, the horror world could have a new icon.
Narratively, Sabrina both zips though its best parts and drags along the second half. After the fast-paced, tension-building first act, the film rushes to an exorcism before the 40-minute mark, changing tones from a haunted doll story to a The Conjuring-like tale of paranormal investigators who are also a couple. The scariest thing Sabrina ever does is move her eyes or turn a chair around to look at another character. More often than not, we’re watching the “ghost,” a person in so-so makeup and a terrible prosthetic nose, terrorizing the family.
The second half, almost like entirely different film, introduces a convoluted story involving a family squabble and a tale of betrayal and greed, all via flashbacks that come out of nowhere halfway through the film. If you thought The Return of the King had too many endings, wait until you see how this film ends over and over. Some may find the numerous plot twists clever, but the film never gives you a reason to care about the new developments. There’s even a martial arts-heavy final encounter involving a knife fight with a demon and a sacred dagger, which honestly, Annabelle 3 needs to co-opt.
Sabrina introduces some new concepts to the tired haunted doll story, a new cultural perspective into grief and tales of possession and the creepiest doll you’ve ever seen. However, it quickly abandons its most interesting elements for a run-of-the-mill possession story that changes tone and focus every 20 minutes. Netflix might be the perfect platform for it.