By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Starring Ezra Dewey, Rob Brownstein and Tevy Poe
Written and Directed by David Charbonier and Justin Powell
Wishing for a better life can be a double-edged sword. For every fairy tale of princesses getting rescued by their prince and living happily ever after, there is a cautionary tale of monkey paws or evil witches who use the hopes of the innocent to make a bargain with darkness. THE DJINN is yet another story that shows the darker side of desire, but it’s use of space and sound make it an exceptional film.
The film is set in the summer of 1989, just as a young boy’s life is changing. Dylan (Ezra Dewey) has lost his mother (Tevy Poe) to tragedy that he blames himself for, and has to now move in with his father (Rob Brownstein). His father is kind and a good man, but his work as an overnight radio DJ means that he isn’t able to spend the first night in the new apartment with his son. Dylan seems like a smart kid, and is old enough to be left alone for the night (at least, by ’80s standards), but it still feels a little lonely, all the same. He is also still grappling with the unshakable trauma of his mother’s death, which his brain forces him to reexperience frequently. When digging through his closet and the items that were presumably left by the previous, deceased tenant, things take an interesting turn. First, there is a massive, antique mirror that Dylan drags out of the closet and into his bedroom. But before the film can go full Oculus on us, the boy finds something even more intriguing: a book of spells. Flipping through the book, he finds a spell to conjure a djinn, who will then grant one wish. Dylan gathers all the specified items he can find, reads the directions well enough, and gets to work to involve this unknown power in his emotional life. What could go wrong?
Djinn, or jinn, are the earlier names for genies, and they, of course, grant wishes. Unlike the Disney version voiced by Robin Williams, these creatures are from Islamic mythology and they can take human form. Djinn are not exclusively malevolent, but they certainly can be. Neither demons nor angels, they are not always acting in the best interest of the humans who make requests of them, and they owe them no obligation or kindness. Unfortunately for Dylan, the Djinn he brings back is squarely in the “bad” column on the mythological spreadsheet, and he must fight for his life against this supernatural tormentor.
While this is all exciting on a plot level, THE DJINN sets itself apart with its camera work and sound design. Dylan is a special little boy, but not just because he just lost his mother: Dylan is mute. He can hear just fine, it seems, and he can sign and write notes to communicate, but he cannot speak or vocalize in any way. Because of this, THE DJINN is completely dialogue free for the vast majority of the film’s running time. There are brief moments of voiceover whenever the directions for his spell are read, but, other than that, the film solely relies on Dewey’s performance, the sound design, and visual language to get these spooks and scares across.
The cinematography of THE DJINN is perfectly engineered to showcase the terror and danger present for Dylan. Often, the camera follows him around the apartment in a single, long take, just at his eye level. As he is scanning the corners and doorways for any signs of this evil spirit or the dead person it has inhabited, we are right there with him, seeing everything from Dylan’s gaze. The fluid movements and alignment with Dylan make THE DJINN feel more like a fight for survival than a campy haunted house tour. And fight he does. This particular djinn is sneaky, unrelenting, and cruel in ways that filmmakers often excuse children from experiencing. Its assaults on Dylan are both physical and emotional, and that nastiness is intentional. It would be harder to watch if Dylan were either less adaptable or more innocent in the matter, but the fact that he can fend for himself and essentially asked for this makes the constant attacks feel less revolting.
THE DJINN manages to make a classic careful-what-you-wish-for movie into a sharp, tight, and disturbing little story, without relying on dialogue, multiple locations, or more than a handful of actors. It is the very definition of both “scrappy” and “successful” and still manages to pile scares on scares.