Woe betide the grade-school-age lad who finds himself in a movie by writing-directing duo David Charbonier and Justin Powell: He may survive their plotlines, but it won’t be pretty. Their official first feature, “The Boy Behind the Door” (which will debut on streaming platform Shudder July 29), found two such kids fighting for their lives after being abducted by a stranger.
In the new, more supernaturally tilted “The Djinn,” they’ve crafted another effective suspense exercise from the same basic premise, trapping a juvenile protagonist in a home with a malevolent nemesis. . IFC Midnight is opening the feature in limited theaters as well as launching on digital and VOD platforms May 14.
Set in 1989 for no obvious reason beyond justifying the generic retro dreariness of the interior setting (or perhaps the vintage-synth aspects of Matthew James’ score), the movie opens with our first among many successively revealing glimpses of the same scene: 12-year-old Dylan (Ezra Dewey) waking in the middle of the night to find his mother (Tevy Poe) sobbing in the kitchen.
That this episode did not turn out well is evidenced by the fact that when we next meet Dylan, he’s moving into a featureless two-floor apartment or condo with his father (Rob Brownstein). Mom is no longer in the picture, though it takes some time for the script to reveal just why. We do glean, however, that Dylan — who is mute, though not deaf — worries his inability to speak somehow caused her exit.
Dad assures him “you’re perfect as you are.” Still, when the now-solo parent goes off to work (he’s a night disc jockey at a radio station), Dylan goes straight for what he’s found in his new bedroom’s closet: a musty old book containing instructions for magic spells. Using candle, mirror and pinprick of blood, he performs the “Wish of Desire” ritual to plead for “a voice” from the titular wish-granting spirit. He barely notices the proviso “But beware the djinn’s toll; for the gift that you seek may cost your soul.”
To his disappointment, there is no immediate result, vocal or otherwise. Soon, however Dylan is puzzled by electronic devices that turn on by themselves, the telephone’s vanishing and other inexplicable disturbances. By the half-hour mark here, he’s horrified to spy the creature he’s summoned — one that will mostly be seen in various human forms, as it is an imitative changeling. Not long afterward, he realizes that somehow all the home’s exits have become impermeable. In a moment’s respite from attack, our asthmatic hero reads in the magic book that he must outlast an hour in the ghoul’s “company” and/or snuff out its candle flame in order to survive. Neither task will be remotely easy.
“The Djinn” was actually shot before “Boy Behind the Door,” though the second played festivals last fall. While both are bare-bones concepts requiring few budgetary frills, this effort more starkly illustrates a goal of creating (as a press-kit directors’ statement puts it) “an exciting story despite having extremely limited resources and virtually no money.” The story might just as easily have lent itself to a half-hour horror-anthology format. But the directors manage to sustain its tension over a still-compact longer haul, not so much via any notable plot ingenuity as by building a mood of constant, credible emergency.
Julian Amaru Estrada’s camera does a lot of ominous prowling, setting us up for the jolt each time there really is something alien in the frame; Powell keeps the editorial rein taut. There are also interesting tricks played with William Tabanou and Nathan Ruyle’s sound design, which makes the most of distinctions between Dylan’s and the djinn’s sensory aptitudes. But there’s no question the film works as well as it does primarily thanks to Dewey (who’s also in “Door”). His impressive job expressing not-quite-helpless terror for the film’s bulk almost single-handedly carries the proceedings.
What you see is what you get with “The Djinn” (as well as “Boy Behind the Door”), with scant explanation of a villain that simply wants to kill our protagonist for the run time’s duration. There’s not a lot to linger on afterward, and it will be interesting to see how the filmmakers fare with more complex stories and expansive production resources. But there is definitely something to be said for talents that start out with a small, attainable goal — then nail it.
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