IFC Midnight presents a creepily effective take on a tale as old as time.
Like a modern Grimm’s fairy tale, The Djinn has some brutal lessons to teach. The most important may be to avoid reading ancient texts called “The Book of Shadows” if at all possible, but the other key takeaway is that talented artists can do a lot with very little. The second film from writer/directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell drives this home, thanks to some sharp, cost-effective horror directing, with only a few hiccups along the way.
The film is presented by IFC Midnight, which specializes in low-budget movies that live in the darker corners of genre cinema (they’re the company who unleashed both Human Centipede and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist into the world). The Djinn continues that tradition by bringing the “Be careful what you wish for” premise to graphic and psychologically disturbing places.
Set in 1989, the movie follows a mute twelve-year-old boy, Dylan Jacobs (Ezra Dewey), who struggles with the loss of his mother while he and his father (Rob Brownstein) move into a depressingly small apartment together. One night when his father pulls an overnight shift, Dylan is forced into the latchkey kid role and has the apartment to himself.
While searching around his closet, he comes across an old book of spells that provides instructions on how to grant wishes. Since this pre-teen may not have read “The Monkey’s Paw” yet in school, Dylan goes through with one of the spells, wishing for the ability to speak. But according to the ancient evil fine print, he has to survive the wrath of an evil genie until midnight in order for his wish to come true.
It’s always risky to lean on the performance of a child actor for an entire movie, but the filmmakers luckily found gold with Dewey (he’s also a co-lead in the directors’ debut film, The Boy Behind the Door), especially when you consider he gives a full performance without speaking. He strikes a perfect balance between maturity, going up against this malevolent spirit with the confidence of Kevin McCallister fighting the Wet Bandits in Home Alone, but with a level of vulnerability that’s heartbreaking, especially later in the film when Dewey’s asked to provide an emotional catharsis that would be tough for an actor at any age.
Charbonier and Powell are also able to balance a strong performance with some excellent camerawork and lighting in a limited setting. As a child of divorce, I’m intimately aware of how sad that first post-marriage apartment can be for dads who are trying their best. There’s no artwork on the walls, leftover take-out litters the empty kitchen, and the carpet hasn’t been clean for decades. In The Djinn, the directors are able to turn a typical “Sad Dad apartment” into something more sinister.
The empty rooms, desperate for any kind of furniture, suddenly become open spaces with nowhere to hide from this evil genie. In one excellent sequence, the camera floats through the apartment from the POV of the Djinn. The set is bathed in shades of red as the camera covers every square inch of the place, showing us all the dark corners where something could be waiting later. It’s like Adam Driver’s bare apartment in Marriage Story turning into the house of horrors from Don’t Breathe.
Like a modern Grimm’s fairy tale, The Djinn has some brutal lessons to teach.
The downside to sticking to one location for the entire film, after the first intense scene of Dylan running away from the genie, is the movie can only rinse and repeat. There are only so many rooms in this apartment, so after the third sequence in a row of Dylan narrowly escaping the clutches of the Djinn by hiding in a closet, the film’s momentum slows down considerably.
There’re also vague rules surrounding the Djinn that gum up the story. Throughout the film, the genie has the power to float around in the form of black smoke and transform into different people, including an escaped convict that the movie barely touches on, but it also can’t seem to get past closed doors. The movie shows how Dylan is capable of defending himself, but to be fair, the genie doesn’t seem to try too hard.
The other misstep is the awkward 80s timestamps. One thing horror films need to work on going forward is to be able to set a story in modern times while accepting the fact that cell phones do make it easier to get out of typical horror movie situations, but figure out ways to get around it. This film is set in 1989, but you would never know it, even with the thumping 80s synths that make up the score that sounds like a Kidz Bop version of the Drive soundtrack. The time period adds nothing to the movie besides a simple way of avoiding Dylan texting his dad, “Hey, Pops…I may have unleashed an evil genie in our apartment. Lolz”
Despite those flaws, the movie still hits hard when it matters. Like those old school Grimm stories, this tale ends in macabre fashion, teaching us the harsh truth that the past can’t be changed, no matter how many spells you try. The finale may be too brutal for some, but if you watch the film as a dark fairy tale, it makes perfect, horrific sense. It may have some blemishes, but it’s a story worth reading, especially in the dark, past your bedtime.
The Djinn premieres in theaters May 14th.