With an old-school narrative reminiscent of both the Brothers Grimm and O. Henry, The Djinn spins a spooky story that falls somewhere between a fairy tale and a cautionary one. However, this indie horror movie isn’t just a lesson on the price of getting what you wish for; it’s also an 82-minute class on how to make an unnerving film on the cheap, courtesy of writers and directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell.
The opening moments inform the audience of the 1989 setting, but what truly identifies the era of The Djinn is that 12-year-old Dylan Jacobs (Ezra Dewey) is left alone all night in their new apartment. After the death of Dylan’s mom, his loving single dad (Rob Brownstein) works the late shift as a radio DJ, leaving his son at home with a pager number to dial in case of emergencies. Dylan doesn’t get into the benign trouble of an ‘80s kid with the whole place to himself. Instead, he has found a pentagram-etched copy of the “Book of Shadows” in a closet, entranced by the pages describing how to make his wish come true. Dylan has a speech disability, and he longs to have a voice. He completes the ritual, but instead of being able to speak, he has conjured the presence of a djinn. The dark creature won’t grant the wish without a sacrifice, and Dylan struggles to survive a night locked in the apartment and outwit the evil being.
Charbonier and Powell have crafted a spare but effective horror film, set almost entirely in a single location and starring just a handful of actors. The filmmakers are clearly working without much money, but they use it effectively, with an innovative approach to the djinn that ratchets up the fear without blowing up the small budget. Occasionally, the film’s confines seem too constrictive, with Dylan’s inability to escape the apartment feeling defined by the budget and not the plot, but it is still nicely claustrophobic. The script sometimes goes exactly where we expect it to — and not just because Dylan can’t actually leave the apartment — but it still evokes not only fear but also sadness at what is happening to the boy.
Julián Estrada’s cinematography often relies on perspective shots from either our hero or the force that terrorizes him, and it generally works, with the monetary limitations pushing Charbonier and Powell to get creative. From the whipping of a ceiling fan to the asthmatic breathing of Dylan, the sound design also successfully transports the audience into a state of unease. Special effects are employed economically — in both senses of the word — but there’s a compelling beauty to the horrors on screen. The ‘80s setting doesn’t lean too heavily on nostalgia, and I’m somehow still not tired of synth-heavy scores and soundtracks in the ever-growing subgenre of horror movies set in the decade. The apartment looks period-appropriate in its detail, though setting it in the sparsely decorated, new-to-the-Jacobs home smartly gives the crew some leeway in recreating the era.
However, even with the talents and ingenuity of the writer-directors on display, The Djinn wouldn’t work without its young lead. The film rests almost entirely on the still-growing shoulders of Dewey. The actor previously worked with Charbonier and Powell on their first film, The Boy Behind the Door, which played festivals in 2020 and will be released later this year. Since his character cannot speak, the audience relies heavily on his nonverbal reactions to the horrors hounding him. Dewey’s expressive face perfectly communicates his terror, from his wide eyes to a believable grimace. A giant budget wouldn’t have saved the film if Dylan hadn’t been well cast, but his performance allows the film to expand beyond its limitations.
As scrappy and resourceful as its child hero, The Djinn makes good use of everything it has to keep the audience in its thrall. It’s most remarkable because of how well it does within those constraints, with an air of awe permeating the film’s overarching mood of dread. Viewers might wonder, “How did they do that” for a moment, but they’ll quickly be drawn back into the haunting story.
“The Djinn” is out in theaters and available on digital/VOD Friday.