Review: New Filmmaking Duo Centers Horror Film The Djinn on Emotions as Much as on Scares

The Djinn is the kind of movie that proves that big budgets and a marquee cast are sometimes just icing on the independent filmmaking cake and that a perfectly entertaining film really just needs a solid cast, reliable production value and a great script to succeed. At least as far as thrillers go, writing/directing duo David Charbonier and Justin Powell do quite a lot with very little in terms of setting, effects, performances and ultimately even dialogue, all while maintaining a compelling tension around the fate of one young boy in search of his voice (literally and figuratively). The Djinn may not launch a horror franchise, but for moviegoers who enjoy a good original scare, it’s a great way to spend just under 90 minutes.

The Djinn
Image courtesy of IFC Midnight

Set in the 1990s, a brief prologue introduces us to Dylan (Ezra Jacobs), a grade schooler who wakes up one night and, as kids do, goes looking for his mother. She’s in the kitchen, but in the middle of something brutal to which he should very much not be a witness. Quickly, the film cuts ahead to the summer and his father, Michael (Rob Brownstein), moving them into a new apartment, just the two of them. It’s clear something has happened to his wife, as she’s no longer with them, but we won’t learn just what until much later in Dylan’s very long night ahead. MIchael and Dylan get settled in the new place, and Dylan asks about the apartment’s history—apparently someone had died in their same unit previously. He communicates with his dad wordlessly, using sign language to ask his questions, like if it’s his fault his mom is no longer with them. But it’s clear he’s not deaf; Michael responds by simply speaking back to him, and he can clearly hear his dad’s words.

A late-night DJ on a local radio station, Michael heads off to work his overnight shift, leaving Dylan on his own (it’s the ’90s, remember) to explore the apartment and put himself to bed. In the closet, he finds a mysterious Book of Wishes that describes a witchy way to get exactly what you desire. What kid could resist giving it a try? Certainly not Dylan, who follows all the book’s directions for lighting a candle, dripping a few droplets of blood into the flame…you know, typical horror movie stuff. What Dylan conjures is some mysterious creature called The Djinn, a shadowy figure that torments Dylan throughout the apartment and seems to morph into what he fears most. The visual effects to create the creature are as much about CGI as they are the clever camera work in a confined space, particularly when the film moves into the small bathroom where the creature traps Dylan for a few frightful moments. The mirror shows us two different versions of what this creature might be, and it plants a sort of uncertainly about just what we’re dealing with here.

The filmmakers seem less concerned with rooting The Djinn in any sort of mythology or folklore than ensuring viewers develop a strong connection with Dylan, sympathizing with his trauma and this arduous journey through one very scary night. There’s never any real explanation about the book he finds in the closet, or even a whiff of backstory on the creature or where it comes from. Which is fine, really, for a character-driven story like this. What matters is that this creepy thing is here, and whether it’s real or imagined, it’s forcing Dylan to face his fears, to confront the scariest moment of his life and discover for himself that nothing he could’ve done would have changed the outcome of that fateful night when he encountered his mother in the kitchen.

Charbonier and Powell are a fairly new arrival on the independent horror film scene, though they already have two feature films completed and in the process of being released: The Djinn, and later this summer, The Boy Behind the Door (also starring Ezra Jacobs) begins streaming on Shudder. If the latter is as thoughtfully crafted as the latter, with the emotional journey of its characters as important to the narrative as the scares, the duo seem to be on their way to a noteworthy niche filmography.

The Djinn is now playing in select theaters, including at Music Box Theatre.

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Lisa Trifone