The Djinn: Wise Investment, by Dayne Linford
Clearly but cleverly made on a shoestring budget, The Djinn manages to make its limitations a mostly natural element of the story, focusing on one boy’s grief following the death of his mother, his sense of guilt and alienation manifested as an ancient monster looking to harvest his soul. Following the death, revisited in dream-like flashbacks throughout the film, Dylan (Ezra Dewey), a mute twelve-year-old, and his father (Rob Brownstein) have just moved into a new apartment, stacked with boxes in every room. He finds, among the possessions of the deceased previous owner, an ornate spellbook. Within various magical incantations and illustrations lies a ritual for summoning a Djinn to grant your heart’s desire. Later that night, while his father pulls a double deejaying at the local radio station, Dylan decides to enact the ritual. Facing an old, mangled mirror with candle aloft, he intones the spell, signing his desire to have a voice. Nothing happens, and he dejectedly goes to shower, even as the Djinn begins to materialize in the apartment and set about trying to kill him.
Exactly why the Djinn wishes him dead is a little confusing at first, addressed later when Dylan revisits the spellbook to read the “terms” of the ritual, learning he must survive an hour, trapped with the Djinn, before he can extinguish the ritual candle and force the Djinn to grant his wish. Also, the Djinn takes the form of various dead people, regenerating as a new human body each time Dylan manages to kill it. This is budgetarily convenient, since the monster can be played by actors with little dressing, but the supernatural fun of the conceit is unnecessarily sapped by a conga line of unimaginative avatars, each a regular person with slight black veins on their necks. Ideally, this conceit should be wonderful for thematic purposes, each potentially mangled corpse a macabre manifestation of Dylan’s hopes, fears, traumas, circling the drain of his mother’s death. The film gets there eventually, more or less, but over-relies on unhinged, toothful jaws and other monster movie cliches to sell the horror, instead of letting us share Dylan’s dread and pain in response to these manifestations, the mere fact of which should be enough.
Though it manages some good scares, the film’s limitations increasingly wear throughout repeated long stalking and attacking scenes, becoming more dull with each manifestation. It’s very incongruous how many dumb choices this Djinn makes, especially attached to the ominous warnings in the spellbook that the creature will try to trick whomever summons it. The Djinn can draw its form from photographs and the boy’s own mind, understands gas lines in contemporary apartments, and yet hauls off and mistakenly smashes a stuttering radiator late in its protracted cat and mouse with Dylan. This is the central weakness of the film, and what keeps it from really inciting fear. The Djinn itself has no motivation or development, no sense of an actual being with agency, let alone phenomenal cosmic powers, which leaves the viewer simply wondering if it heard Dylan’s latest movement, not what it’s ultimate plan is to jilt him of his wish or drag his soul to Hell. That the idea of a Djinn comes from a specific cultural context with a long history, possibly pre-dating Zoroastrianism, is never touched on, and could have lent a great deal of texture and context to the monster. Ultimately, what should be an interesting take from very old mythology with literal centuries of material to draw on, becomes just another movie monster with big, weird teeth.
The directors succeed best in building a visual thematic framework, which, while blunt, does pay off nicely in the last scene. The opening shot of a fan, its blades spinning counter-clockwise, becomes a motif for the boy’s desire to turn back time and fix his perceived fault in his mother’s death. This comes up explicitly later, but is also touched throughout, particularly in a bit of inspired filmmaking, a montage of Dylan preparing the ritual, as the camera pans leftwards, then cuts to another leftward pan, and so on throughout the apartment. This little bit of visual flair shows real promise on the part of the writer-directors, but is unfortunately undercut by their lackluster writing and conceptual work. Further, the choice to include a disabled character and make the disability the primary fulcrum on which all elements of the film turn, appears very thoughtful in one scene and strikingly thoughtless in another. Given the ultimate manner in which the Djinn twists Dylan’s wish, and the root experience behind the wish in the first place, a little more care here is warranted, even if the irony is effective.
The Djinn is a fairly middling horror movie that nonetheless manages to punch above its weight. Directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell do quite a bit with just a little, and it comes across as a competent little horror movie, featuring an unusually strong performance from its young lead, with a good sense of atmosphere and the possibilities of the genre. It’s not the next classic, a hidden diamond in the rough, but the people behind it could very well achieve something of that caliber in future outings.