There are a few cardinal rules for the unfamiliar to follow when it comes to magical objects...
...Don’t mess with Ouija boards. Don’t let a virgin light the black flame candle on Halloween night. Don’t summon mystical beings of ambivalent nature from a Book of Shadows hidden in the closet of your new house to grant your deepest desire. Simple stuff. But humans are fallible and impressionable creatures, often unable to resist the temptation of curiosity if there is even the slightest chance we might get something out of it, no matter how great the risk.
Writer-directors’ David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s Panic Fest 2021 entry The Djinn relies on these elements of human nature to tell their story of a young boy with a desperate wish in his heart who, completely unfamiliar with the rules and stakes of enlisting magical help, makes a choice that will flip life as he knows it upside down.
“Do you think mom would have stayed if I wasn’t different?” Dylan (Ezra Dewey) asks his father (Rob Brownstein) one night. While not every disabled person’s experience or feelings around their disability are the same, I am intimately familiar with a shade of this question and so can understand beyond mere suspension of disbelief the desire to correct something about oneself that society casts as lacking. I have since grown out of this inclination and more fully accept myself in all forms, but spending the first several years of my life wanting nothing more than to not be different or not be a burden means that when movies like The Djinn come along to tell stories of people throwing everything to the wind for the chance at filling in the pieces of themselves they have had to spend their lives working around and adapting to on the off chance they might get back something they’ve lost, I get it. You see, Dylan is mute. It isn’t clear—nor does it particularly matter—whether he was born mute or if his condition is the result of some kind of accident, but he is. He speaks through sign language but witnessed a traumatic family tragedy that made clear what an impact not having a voice has. So, when he finds a book of magic in the closet of his new room with a Djinn-summoning spell in it that will grant the reader their deepest wish, it proves a temptation too great to resist. As is usually the case, he gets more than he bargained for more or less immediately and must fight his way through the night to survive.
The Djinn is home invasion meets demon-fighting, and the two come together to make one hell of a horror film. From its opening moments of silence so deep it inclines you to hold your breath and strain your ears for even the smallest of sounds to its minimal storytelling style, it’s obvious Charbonier and Powell knew the kind of story they wanted to tell. No frame is wasted. Every second of its tight 81-minute runtime is spent in service of ramping up the tension as Dylan faces off against the shapeshifting spirit terrorizing him. Perhaps best of all, Dylan is a more than worthy match for this otherworldly adversary. Much like Hush’s Maddie, Dylan knows how to use his surroundings to his advantage even as he is made more and more aware of the true level of danger he faces. He cannot call for help. His survival is entirely dependent on his ability to navigate his space in a way that will outwit the terror stalking him. Ezra Dewey’s performance is so engrossing and, at times, heart-wrenching, that I found myself subconsciously moving with him as I watched. For one so young, he is acutely aware of what’s required of him to tell a story effectively and is more than capable of doing whatever it takes.
I would be remiss not to highlight both Matthew James’ original score and the sound design by William Tabanou and Nathan Ruyh, both of which form the backbone to The Djinn’s recipe for suspense. Likewise for Julián Estrada’s cinematography, which gave the whole film an intensely claustrophobic feel, particularly when Dylan is injured or trying to hide. Interestingly, the moments between Dylan and his father feel much more open than when he’s alone or battling the demon, a distinction that remains intact throughout the film and an impressive feat for something that more or less takes place in a single location.
Even the bits that might make me draw back a bit, like using the story of Pinocchio to weave the message more firmly in place, are used in such a way that it serves the story without patronizing Dylan’s status as disabled. The elements of Pinocchio in play here are not that he wants to be a “real boy” just like all the others, but that we cannot undo the things that have happened to us, no matter how badly we wish otherwise. In fact, the only person who actively wants to change Dylan’s disability is Dylan himself; his dad spends most of his brief time in the film trying to remind him that he’s a perfectly capable human being just as he is.
While its scares may not work with the same intensity on everyone, The Djinn is a masterful work of tension and heart for those willing to give themselves to the story and dig a bit beneath its surface. It situates itself tonally somewhere between Are You Afraid of the Dark’s minimal and kid-centered focus and Tigers Are Not Afraid’s bleak-tinged emotional pull. A strange spot to be, perhaps, but one that works.
The Djinn comes to VOD on May 14th from IFC Midnight.
By Katelyn Nelson
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