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Cloquet native designed doll at heart of horror film ‘Annabelle’

The key to “Annabelle” was creating a doll that wasn’t outright scary, but had a certain level of creepiness, according to special effects pro Tony Rosen. (Photo submitted by Randi Wherley)1 / 2
A doll is possessed by a murderous cultist in Warner Bros’ “Annabelle,” in theaters now. Cloquet native Tony Rosen designed the doll for the film, and for last year’s “The Conjuring.” (Warner Bros. picture / MCT)2 / 2

She’s got wheat-colored braids with red bows, round rosy cheeks and big eyes. She’s child-sized and wears a long white dress.

She could be a collectible, the centerpiece of a doll shelf. Instead, she is possessed and viewers are only really safe, well safe-ish, when she’s

enclosed in glass and blessed monthly by a Catholic priest.

She is the doll at the center of this season’s it-flick and the creation of a locally raised special-effects professional whose niche is creepy props. Tony Rosen, originally from Cloquet, designed and built the demonic vessel that tortures a young couple in “Annabelle.”

The movie is a prequel to “The Conjuring,” which first introduced the doll.

“It’s pretty enjoyable,” Rosen said of seeing his work on the big screen. “I can be happy about that. The movie was made specifically from something I made. It’s pretty nice.”

Rosen said he has always been a fan of horror flicks and grew up as a regular reader of Fangoria magazine. He favored movies like “The Fly” and “The Thing.” After getting his associate degree at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, he moved to Pennsylvania to study special effects. Rosen ended up moving to Wilmington, N.C., where he said he believed he could get work with the local film studio.

Sure enough: “The Conjuring” came calling.

The 2013 horror flick is based on the work by Ed and Lorraine Warren, famous paranormal investigators whose work also inspired “The Amityville Horror.”

The story is set in an old farmhouse, where a couple and their five daughters have moved. Inexplicable things begin happening in the night: The clocks stop, the dog dies, one of the girls keeps getting yanked awake by an unseen force.

The Perrons seek assistance from the Warrens, whose home includes a locked room filled with the haunted knick-knacks they’ve encountered — including the Annabelle doll, which is locked in a glass case.

Annabelle is a minor character in “The Conjuring,” and based on the Warrens’ story of a possessed Raggedy Ann doll owned by a 20-something nursing student who would come home to find the doll posed in different positions, located in different rooms or, allegedly, with dots of blood or crayon-scrawled messages, according to the Warrens’ website.

“The Conjuring” was filmed in Wilmington, and when licensing fell through on the Raggedy Ann doll, director James Wan needed a different doll model, Rosen said.

Wan met Rosen’s wife, Melanie, while at a hair salon where some of his creations are displayed, Rosen said. The director was interested in his work.   

“They showed me all of the (doll) designs they had gotten, and they said not to do any like that,” Rosen said.

The filmmakers didn’t want anything specifically scary, Rosen said. They were looking for creepy instead. They wanted something that could be an antique.

Rosen said he made about 10 doll designs, and the end result was bits and pieces from the different dolls.

Annabelle was sculpted in clay, molded and cast in plastic. The mouth and eyes move in “The Conjuring,” but not in “Annabelle” which was directed by John Leonetti, the cinematographer from “The Conjuring.”  

“I thought they turned out pretty well,” Rosen said. “The doll was the scariest part of the movie.”

A critic from the New Yorker panned the movie “Annabelle,” calling it a “clichéd mess, lacking humor and surprises.” But Bruce Diones gave Rosen’s contribution a nod.

“The doll, which bears more than a casual resemblance to Bette Davis’ character in ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,’ is creepily inanimate, and Leonetti uses it to good effect,” he wrote.

“Annabelle” scored a 31 percent on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer.

Rosen has created pieces for the TV shows “Under the Dome” and “Sleepy Hollow.” Annabelle has brought him more work.

“Right now, I’m working on an exploding head for one film and Halloween costumes,” he said. “Then, there is another indie film that I’m trying to get a werewolf suit built for.”