Summoning The Thrill-less: The Djinn (2021) - Reviewed

By now, most of us are familiar with the myth of the wish-granting genie: Find a magic lamp, rub the side of it and out pops a smoky creature who will make your dreams come true. Popularized by stories like Disney’s Aladdin and Sidney Sheldon’s I Dream of Jeannie, these whimsical apparitions we have come to love have their origins in the much darker tales of the djinn.

Although the exact origin of the djinn is unknown, myths surrounding these supernatural creatures date back to pre-Islamic Arabia. Tales of their characteristics vary from benevolent beings capable of great magic, to evil shape-shifters who can possess the vulnerable and steal children. Islamic era scholars have described the djinn as beings made of a smokeless fire, created by God himself, eventually cast out and forced to live between worlds for being non-believers. In the horror genre, the most common depictions of djinn have a smoky or shadow like form, inspired by the Islamic descriptions, which can be seen in films like Tobe Hooper’s Djinn (2013), Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad’s Jinn (2014), and Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadown (2016).  Director’s David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s film The Djinn (2021) is no different.

The film begins in the fall of ’89 when a mute boy named Dylan (Ezra Dewey) and his father Michael (Rob Brownstein) move into a new apartment after the loss of their mother/wife.  Dylan is plagued by the memory of the last time he saw his mother, crying with her back turned in a dark kitchen lit with only one candle. He asks his father if she would have stayed had he not been “different”.  Even though Michael reassures his son her loss was not his fault, Dylan decides to take matters into his own hands after finding what appears to be a book of the occult in his new closet. Inside he discovers a spell to summon a djinn, who will grant the summoner one wish, as long as the spell is cast at the beginning of the last hour of the day. There is just one catch: You have to survive alone with the djinn until the stroke of midnight. 

Courtesy of IFC Films

After Michael, a local radio jockey, leaves his son for the night to go to work, Dylan commits to summoning the djinn to grant him a voice. This happens at roughly the 20-minute mark of the 81-minute long film, so the remaining hour of The Djinn almost matches the hour of survival described in the book. Unfortunately, this last hour is a lackluster and tedious viewing. First, the ‘80s setting of the film is unnecessary. Other than a tube TV, a small boom box and a cordless telephone, nothing is this film feels particularly ‘80s. Michael and Dylan’s apartment is unremarkably neutral and does not serve any aesthetic purpose. There is an attempt to create atmosphere with some old school sounding, synth tracks, but given the lack of ‘80s aesthetic elsewhere in The Djinn, the music feels disjointed from the film.

Next, the plot spends little if almost no time developing the backstory of the characters, leaving the sequence of evasions by Dylan from the djinn to feel hollow and episodic. For example, the film establishes a rule that allows the djinn to shape-shift into any dead person. However, since two of the three people in which the creature impersonates have no real relationship to Dylan’s character, it feels like the film needing to use actors in many of the chase scenes in order to cut down on special effects costs. The one instance where the djinn does impersonate someone important to Dylan, the payoff lacks the intensity it would otherwise have if the audience were able to develop a stronger bond with the character first.

Finally, without strong character development and backstory, which could aid in building tension towards some genuinely frightening moments in the film, The Djinn has to rely on cheap, jump scare tactics in order to deliver on its horror film promise. Not only is the jump scare a tired strategy as of 2021, it pushes the film down a path of diminishing replay returns on an already mediocre viewing experience. This is not to say The Djinn is not without some merit. The film is technically strong for its low budget and Ezra Dewey gives an enigmatic performance. The weakness of The Djinn lives in the weakness of its script, where the scariest thing about the consequences of encountering a djinn is having to live with them in a post-Reagan America. 

-Dawn Stronski