The Djinn (2021) is an excellent example of how to make an effective horror movie on a relatively low budget and in a single location. At a lean 80 minutes, directors/writers David Charbonier and Justin Powell don’t waste a single minute. The bulk of the film feels finely tuned, containing dread, suspense, and earnest performances from the small cast.
The Djinn in this film isn’t Aladdin’s genie. Rather, this ancient Arabic spirit/demon is true to its roots. It will grant one wish but at a grave price. It appears as a black, mist-like entity that can take on the form of any deceased person. The creature could have looked silly in this, but fortunately, it does not. It’s an effective monster, both in its mist and human forms.
Ezra Dewey plays Dylan, a mute boy emotionally scarred by his mother’s suicide. He discovers the story of the Djinn through a Book of Shadows left at the apartment that he and his father move into, hoping to overcome their past. Dewey gives an emotional performance without uttering more than a word or two. This kid deserves other roles after this breakout. He conveys both fear and courage through facial expressions, and as he goes toe to toe with the sinister entity, you want him to survive. He’s an incredibly likable protagonist, and you can’t blame him for summoning a spirit and wishing for the ability to speak. His pain is palpable, especially in one scene when he looks out the window, observing other kids playing. He knows that he’ll always be different than them. Yet, despite that, he’s able to fend for himself and battle an ancient spirit that can transform or seep through any crevice or vent.
Further, the directors spend just enough time developing the loving relationship between Dylan and his widowed dad, Michael (Rob Brownstein), who exudes pathos during the limited amount of time he’s on screen. Additionally, all the nods to fairytales enhance the film, including one scene in which Michael reads Pinocchio to Dylan, specifically the horrific transformation scene. It’s a reminder that several fairy tales and folklore have a dark undercurrent. What’s more terrifying than a boy turning into an animal?
Filmed in California, The Djinn is set in 1989 and takes place in one location, an apartment. The single location serves the story well. Dylan can’t leave while the genie is present, and he has so few places to hide. The entity could lurk behind any corner, transforming into several different human forms, including his mother. Charbonier and Powell shift the POV from the Djinn’s to Dylan’s, and it’s incredibly effective and pulse-pounding. Sure, we’ve seen this trick before, but they handle it masterfully.
Matthew James scored the film, but some of the most effective music includes dreamy 1980s pop songs played over the radio. It adds to the fairytale quality, especially during the first 30 minutes. Yet, if you listen to the lyrics, or consider the Pinocchio passage Michael reads, the dark, foreboding undercurrent is always present. We know Dylan will unleash something supernatural from that strange book he finds. To add, some of the red tones used by cinematographer Julián Estrada make the apartment feel like a hellscape that’s impossible to exit without giving the Djinn your soul.
Hopefully, Charbonier and Powell work together on another horror film soon. With The Djinn, they’ve created a frightful fairytale with an emotionally engaging performance by Dewey at its core. The tension builds to a heartbreaking conclusion that shows the price one pays for summoning the malevolent genie. The Djinn uses its one location and minimal budget skillfully, spinning a chilling tale with a powerful performance at its center.
The Djinn releases in theaters and VOD on May 14 via IFC Midnight.
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