The adage “be careful what you wish for” takes on a sinister threat in the realm of horror. Wishes granted never bring happiness, and they come with a steep price tag. The wish granted often comes in the form of a supernatural entity; an evil genie or djinn. With The Djinn, cursed wish-fulfillment befalls a young child and dangles the potential for another stale entry on the familiar Monkey’s Paw scenario. Instead, it pares back the bells and whistles for a meticulous simplicity that lets the scares and suspense do the heavy lifting for this modern fairy tale nightmare.
Mute twelve-year-old Dylan Jacobs (Ezra Dewey) just moved into a new apartment with dad, Michael (Rob Brownstein). It’s 1989, and Michael works nights as a radio DJ, which means Dylan gets left home alone all night. Being the new kid on the block means Dylan has yet to make any friends, and he’s still struggling with the loss of his mother. Then he discovers an old Book of Shadows left behind by the previous tenant, which contains a ritual that promises to grant the performer’s greatest desire. Getting that wish comes with a catch; an evil Djinn will only give it if you follow specific rules, lest it takes your soul. Dylan becomes trapped and embroiled in an intense battle for his life.
Writer/Directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell‘s follow-up to the upcoming The Boy Behind the Door sees them reteaming with Dewey and adhering to a similar formula of creating maximum suspense within a limited space. However, this time, they trade disturbing realism for a supernatural ’80s-set fairy tale, complete with a catchy pop synth soundtrack and storyteller narration.
The Djinn wastes no time cutting straight to the horror. Teases of Dylan’s loss opens the film, followed quickly by easily digestible setup exposition before the evil entity begins its night of terror. While the early scares can be potent, those same tactics appear in countless other haunted house horror movies, suggesting that Dylan’s story will follow a predictable pattern. Charbonier and Powell quickly defy those expectations, however, bringing unique mythos while ramping up the dread and tension at a rapid clip. They’re unafraid of putting their young lead in harm’s way, physically and emotionally. It lends necessary stakes and white-knuckle suspense, and the filmmakers don’t hold back on visceral terror, especially in the back half.
Charbonier and Powell demonstrate a firm grip on pacing and escalation, but their ability to make full use of space and a low budget is remarkable. The Djinn is minimal in location and design, yet the way the action and scare sequences are staged creates breathless tension that can and does leaves you on the edge of your seat. Everything on screen has a purpose and a payoff; there’s a simplicity to it all, but it’s done with a meticulous vision.
That the lead protagonist is a young boy without a voice means a film without much dialogue. The filmmakers fill that quiet with utter terror, surprising violence, and an evil genie that takes many forms. At first, those appearances are lackluster, but it becomes more interesting as new mythology details emerge. Then, it becomes downright unsettling as the clock winds down and the stakes are at their highest.
The newest entry in evil djinn horror plays like a bedtime story that harkens back to Grimm origins, in the sense that true, bloody horrors await young boys and girls that don’t heed the rules. Those stakes, the palpable dread, an affecting through line grounding the supernatural, and the nail-biting suspense revives a dusty concept. There’s not an ounce of fat here, just a streamlined story packed with intensity and scares. Charbonier and Powell spin gold out of hay, weaving a chilling fairy tale that keeps you engaged throughout. The Djinn may not reinvent the concept, but it does feel fresh in these filmmakers’ hands. Dare we wish for more?
The Djinn made its North American premiere at Panic Fest and releases on VOD and in theaters on May 14.