Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Little Boy Boos

Although there are about fifty Dracula movies in development right now it does seem to me as if the horror movie makers have done some rummaging about in the monster play-box as of late in order to come up with new oogie-boogies for us -- be it the Dybbuk of The Vigil, the nightmare figures haunting the dreams of Come True, the hotel demons knocking on the doors of The Night, or the eroticized religious hallucinations of Saint Maud, this has been a good year for looking for scares somewhere a little niche, a little strange, off the beaten path. 

Maybe it's just the bottomless demand for content (there have been so many horror anthology shows over the past few years) or maybe it's that we're finally hearing from some new voices -- it's Jewish mysticism informing The Vigil, while Iran has proven fertile territory with both The Night and the great Under the Shadow a few years back. And then of course there's Joko Anwar tearing it up centipede-style with his Indonesian funhouses... honestly it's probably all of these things all mixed up together, but besides all of the other advantages just on a base level it's been a real boon for monster lovers.

Which brings me to this weekend's new horror flick The Djinn, titled after the Arabic creature of yore, which is sometimes spelled Jinn but is definitely better known to Western ears as the Genie. (On a side-note over the weekend I watched a spectacular episode of Shudder's Creepshow series that reimagined this same beastie to super duper creepy effect, which is a necessary ingredient for you to understand why I've just rambled about everything I just rambled about.) You know what a Genie is -- rub a lamp, three wishes, yadda yadda. But these new spins exist to stomp out all thoughts of family-friendly blue goofs by way of Robin Williams, returning the trickster spirit to its nasty monkey-paw roots. These wishes never work out the way their wishers intended.

The Djinn could have (and maybe should have) been an anthology show episode, favoring as it does an extremely small scale, keeping itself almost entirely contained to a single apartment and focusing in on a young mute boy named Dylan (Ezra Jacobs) at home one night while his widowed DJ dad works the late shift. Besides its emphatic electronic score (it's set in the 1980s, since that's the new go-to to eliminate the cell phone conundrum), Dylan being mute means The Djinn is very nearly a silent film for half its run-time, which works in its favor -- smart filmmakers know silence is horror's homestead; get us leaning in so we've got further to jump when the eventual sound does come.

It's not just the film's soundtrack, setting and cast that The Djinn whittles down to basics -- the story is also barely a full sentence. After moving to a new apartment Dylan finds a magic book wedged in his closet and makes a wish that he can speak, and must then spend an evening outwitting the loosed specter, at least until his wish will come true at the strike of Midnight. The Djinn itself, first a fog with reddish eyes, eventually takes the corporeal form of the deceased -- economically speaking those flashbacks to Dylan's dead mother have got to pay off somehow, right?

Writer-directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell do make the absolute atmospheric most out of their spartan concept -- always a sticking point for me they actually do a good job of giving us a mental layout of the apartment for one, which is vital when filmmakers decide to confine us viewers to such a claustrophobic space. We can feel it vertiginous-like in our bellies when Dylan is looking in one direction what might be lurking behind or above; where those dark corners and doorways lead, and how something might have shifted there just at the side of our eyes...

But their best asset is Dylan himself -- Ezra Jacobs is extremely empathetic and immediately likable, but never with any of that needy cloying kid actor nonsense. Everything hinges on that, and even when the spareness and simplicity on display edges toward too spare and too simple -- things are so pared down the frights get a little repetitive in the film's last act, as we watch Dylan slip out of the Djinn's grasp yet again... but this time in a different room! -- we still care because Jacobs is good enough he's given us something to really care about.

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