When a speechless young boy and his father move into a new house, the boy finds an old mirror and instructions to summon a djinn. But his heart’s desire may have unintended consequences in this enthusiastically heartfelt supernatural horror.
When Dylan (Ezra Dewey) and his father Michael (Rob Brownstein) arrive in their deceptively modern-looking eighties apartment, little about it screams of the supernatural. The Djinn’s empty, beige interiors make The Exorcist and Poltergeist’s haunted suburbias look positively baroque by comparison. Even a synth-scored unpacking montage and a tank of tropical fish aren’t really enough to make the place feel lived in, and what few belongings the Jacobs family bring along seem designed more to set up future setpieces than to turn the house into a home. An early exchange revealing the demise of its previous occupant hardly bodes well. The stage is set for a low-budget jump-fest full of cheap thrills and stereotypical characters. The Djinn’s greatest achievement, then, is that it sidesteps these expectations entirely, instead delivering a solidly entertaining and surprisingly character-driven story of grief, guilt and the dangers of finding old books in cupboards.
The plot itself is simple enough. With his father out working at a late-night radio station, Dylan decides to summon a djinn, hoping it will grant him the voice he lacks and so desperately wants. For that to happen, however, he must survive an hour in its’ presence, as it shape-shifts into all manner of villains and ne’er do wells. Cue a series of pleasantly inventive set pieces as Dylan defends himself, Home Alone–style, from the titular monster.
The by-the-numbers conceit works far more than it has any right to, thanks largely to the relationship between Dewey and Brownstein. An early food fight starts a touching portrait of a father and son trying to do their best for each other. Their bond is both loving and deceptively uncomplicated in a way which feels both refreshing and believable. As Dylan gets into more and more unsavoury situations, the memory of this relationship—probably more than Dewey’s performance in isolation—is what really ramps up the sense of dread. We worry about Dylan not just for his own sake, but for his dad’s too, and the need to save the family from any more heartbreak.
Matthew James’ eighties synth score is another highlight. Evoking 80s nostalgia more than the 80s themselves, it lends the quieter moments a wistful and endearing quality; as much a testament to the innocence of childhood as to the decade itself. The Djinn knows exactly when to racket up and release tension, unafraid to leave Dylan and the audience in silence for extended periods. The score in these sections is functional, if not ground-breaking, imbuing a sense of dread without telegraphing scares in advance.
There are moments when the film’s ambition seems to outreach its means, however, as lingering visual effects shots allow the limited budget to shine through. The stunts too tend to lack the physical heft required to inspire genuine peril, leading us to wonder why a twelve-year-old boy is able to fend off an ancient (and adult-sized) demonic spirit. When the djinn is allowed to linger at the edge of the frame, though, its design is genuinely creepy, an old circus master crossed with a shadow puppet. These moments of restraint grow all the rarer as the film enters its third act, though, and the film suffers for it.
The ending—or rather, endings—are also a bit of a let-down. The film essentially has two, concluding concurrent narratives which struggle to agree with each other. This unfortunately places the film in a strange position by the end, seemingly unsure what it’s trying to say. While the ‘be careful what you wish for’ message feels like the obvious thematic takeaway, the story seems to more organically strain in another direction entirely. While perhaps a more polished script could have balanced these two themes throughout, here one of them feels a little perfunctory, and threatens to undermine the film’s emotional core.
But still, these qualms sound slightly mean-spirited in the face of what is clearly a labour of love from writer/directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell. They have taken what seems at first to be a fairly perfunctory premise and expanded it into something empathetic, good-natured and at least a little bit scary. For a film of this size and scale, what more could you wish for?
The Djinn is a fine example of low-budget horror filmmaking, its simple concept buoyed by a genuine love for the genre and strong performances from Dewey and Brownstein. While an overreliance on some shonky visual effects threatens to overshadow its monster’s menace, not even a malevolent smoke-demon could take away its heart.
Words by James Harvey
‘The Djinn’ is released in cinemas 17th September.
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