Startlingly tense and lovingly directed, David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s The Djinn is a heartbreaking and imperfect horror film that is a strong addition to the “genie” genre. The 2021 movie follows a minimalistic story about a mute boy, Dylan (a memorably brilliant Ezra Dewey), who becomes trapped in his new apartment as he battles the titular Djinn (eerily voiced by John Erickson), a demonic genie that becomes summoned by Dylan.
Set in 1989, The Djinn begins with Dylan and his father, working class radio DJ Michael (a kind faced Rob Brownstein), coping with the recent death of wife and mother Michelle (a skillfully cast Tevy Poe). When the grieving father and son move to a new home, Dylan learns the previous homeowner died in the apartment, but the young boy still completes the process of summoning a Djinn in exchange for a wish. Using sign language and instructions from a cryptic book he finds, Dylan begs for the ability to speak, going as far as signing “I’ll do anything” in exchange for the erasure of his muteness.
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In formulating the monster of their horror film, Charbonier and Powell take inspiration from Islamic folklore, depicting the duplicitous Djinn as a shape shifting being that tests Dylan’s as well as the audience’s awareness of reality. Consider a scene in the second half when Michelle suddenly appears in the apartment. In a sense, Michelle and the drab, old apartment transform into the mythical beings, occupying a realm where the alive — through Dylan — sees the physical projections of their departed loved ones. The film’s association of parental loss with jinns also harkens back to previous jinn-related horror films such as Jamil Dehlavi’s macabre Born of Fire and Babak Anvari’s politically engaging Under the Shadows, adding an appropriate global dimension to The Djinn.
With such sadness of loss comes thrills. When the Djinn transforms into other people — such as random men whose pictures don local newspapers in the house — cinematographer Julian Estrada utilizes Dutch angles, worms-eye views and flickering lights to expand the apartment into a horror film landscape where anyone at any time could attack the youthful hero. With the mute Dylan solely appearing on screen for most of the running time, vocal dialogue is sparse, so sign language holds equal weight to the spoken word. Dylan’s interactions and usage of sign language is thus framed as a symbol of his identity and inner expression.
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In The Djinn, Dewey provides a moving performance. At times, the actor’s doe-eyed face invites sympathy as Dylan struggles with maternal loss and fear of abandonment while suffering random attacks. Early scenes with Dylan gleefully listening to 80s synth music have a sense of precarity and nostalgia, with fear of the future and love for the past capturing the depicted character’s internal, complex state.
Dewey continues his strong streak with Charbonier and Powell — he was the lead in the pair’s debut The Boy Behind the Door — giving weight to an underdeveloped character and story. Instead of a serious exploration of parental loss and trauma, The Djinn feels like an obstacle course for its hero, as Dylan takes on different opponents and continually beats them, similar to an underdog advancing through a tournament. The Djinn doesn’t hold a significant physical presence, save for a final act moment, which, while intriguing, predictably shows the wisdom of the adage “Be careful what you wish for.”
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Regardless, Charbonier and Powell deliver a provocative, small film that feels bigger and more epic than its brief running time or micro budget suggests. Despite its sometimes bland and predictable characteristics, The Djinn’s central performance is a demonically excellent tour de force, and the work’s inclusion of Islamic folklore is a welcome presence in the Christian-dominated sphere of demon-related American horror films.
Mo Muzammal is a freelance film critic based in Southern California. His interests include Pakistani Cinema, Parallel Cinema and film theory.