A kid. A mysterious (and very mean) intruder. An empty apartment. An hour. There’s not a lot in “The Djinn,” but the new horror thriller and Milwaukee Film Festival selection certainly gets a lot out of what it has, wholly utilizing its limited tools – plus probably a production budget barely enough to cover a person’s student loans – to assemble a refreshingly simple and effectively nightmarish night-in, a freaky fable for old horror hounds and young horror newbies alike.
Stuck in their sparsely decorated new apartment while his radio show host widower dad’s at work, a young mute boy (Ezra Dewey, impressively holding the emotional core of this essentially one-man show) finds something to pass the time: a mysterious book (oh, this can’t be good) decorated with cryptic symbols and filled with spells and incantations (OH, THIS CAN’T BE GOOD) seemingly left behind by the apartment’s former tenant who died. (Yep, no good at all.)
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t raise the same red flags for the inquisitive boy, who decides to try out one of the enchantments for himself, wishing for a voice. Of course, it can’t be that easy. Instead of immediately summoning a voice, he summons the djinn, a supernatural shapeshifter who will grant his wish … if he can survive the malignant genie through midnight, creeping around the apartment looking to violently take from our young hero rather than give.
If they’d found that mysterious book, writer-directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell would probably wish to the djinn for more budget to work with as “The Djinn” clearly plays well within its financial limits. The spell conveniently locks the action inside just the one barely assembled apartment – with just the occasional flashback to a different, equally minimalist apartment – and the special effects are on the notably cheaper end. For most of the movie, the mystical beast is played by regular people, and when the creature’s face is first revealed, well, you can see why.
But while you can occasionally sense the restraints on “The Djinn,” they don’t hold back the chills and percolating suspense as Charbonier and Powell make the most of their lean premise and production. It turns out less might just be more, with the bare-bones set-up and nightmarish atmosphere giving their “be careful what you wish for” horror fable the vibe of a classic scary bedtime story or campfire tale, something passed along where the details faded away but the eerie essence and core hard-earned moral carried on.
And as the movie’s moral points out, if you focus on what you’re missing, you’ll overlook what you have – and what “The Djinn” lacks in big theatrics and grand scare tactics, it more than makes up for with eerie, slow-escalating tension and quiet nerve-splitting suspense. After setting up the characters and the sparse stage, the movie turns into a home invasion thriller in the “Don’t Breathe” or “Panic Room” mold – the latter in particular getting a little nod at one point – with Dewey quietly trying playing cat-and-mouse with the silent sinister menace roaming about the apartment. Charbonier and Powell know how to smartly set up a tense moment, building and ratcheting the silent suspense, a misplaced step shattering through the quiet before starting the shiver-inducing games back up again.
With the help of some calmly eerie direction and cinematography, tossing in some shocking bright and misty reds to enhance the nightmarish mood, “The Djinn” keeps the gnawing dread escalating throughout, anxiously building and building to some brutal and skin-crawling breaking points near the end. (With little objectionable, it could easily serve as a kid’s first horror movie – though even with little to no gore, “The Djinn” throws some satisfying and shockingly gnarly punches.) The bubbling tension nicely primes the audience so the movie’s bigger jolts and jumps pay off – so much so that, even with murky special effects and creature makeup, they still merit and well-earned freak-out.
Combine that constantly tense and creepy nerviness with a solid emotional core that grounds the audience and keeps them invested not just for scares, and you have an assuredly stripped-down and suspenseful horror thriller that adds up to frighteningly more than its slim parts – that may not have cost much to make, but might just cost you a night or two of sleep.
"The Djinn": *** out of ****
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.