There was a unique horror to being a latchkey kid in 1980s America. We were trusted to care for ourselves, after school and into the night, when our parents would roll in bleary-eyed from work. The lack of oversight meant meals could be raggedy affairs leaning hard on junk food. Free time might not favor homework, but running wild around the neighborhood with other under-supervised youngsters. Then came the night, and with it, a clearer sense of the Stranger Danger terror our parents hissed in our ears. Home Alone would make millions by selling a fantasy version of the nightmare scenarios of a child facing home invasion solo. The Djinn rejects the mirth of this concept, giving a scary, supernatural spin to a nerve-chewing childhood fear.
Co-written and co-directed by David Charbonier and Justin Powell, The Djinn follows Dylan Jacobs (Ezra Dewey), a boy who must face off against a mythical monster in a 1989 apartment. He will be left home alone, while his recently widowed father (Rob Brownstein) covers the overnight shift on the local radio station. To any kid with an active imagination, this could be an intense situation. Dylan’s circumstance is made worse by the trauma that stems from the grisly death of his mother (Tevy Poe). Jolting flashbacks thrust us back to a dark night that Dylan can’t forget, that he wishes with his whole soul he could change. Perhaps his dad hoped a change in scenery would help the boy heal. Yet, it’s in this new apartment that Dylan discovers the Book of Shadows, which reveals the secrets of the Djinn, and the incantation that might invite it in.
To earn his deepest wish, Dylan must endure a night of horror at the hands of the Djinn, who will play on the boy’s greatest fears. Charbonier and Powell invoke scares familiar to ’80s kids, from the seemingly possessed television (a la Poltergeist) to the dark figure lurking behind our hero (Halloween). The news report of a deadly escaped convict feels like a nod to Unsolved Mysteries, a staple of ’80s television and captivating cafeteria conversations. Without directly namedropping, the filmmakers suggest Dylan is just like those of us who grew up with one eye on the shadows, anticipating danger.
The ’80s setting is much more than an opportunity for allusion and nostalgia for boomboxes, pagers, rabbit ear televisions, and landline telephones. It was a time when connecting to the wider world wasn’t as easy as sending a Tweet or hitting the emergency code on a cell phone. When Dylan realizes he’s in danger, he rushes to the docking station for the phone, only to discover the handset is missing. A further complication, Dylan is physically incapable of vocalizing. Robbed of being able to call his dad’s pager, he cannot cry out for help to a neighbor or passerby. All this latchkey kid has is himself.
As Dylan cannot scream, The Djinn brews an eerie tension in silence. A mysterious thud down the hall, the buzz of static on a television, the jiggle of a doorknob are all heightened, the hushed breathing under the bed. The synth score swells spooky and suspenseful as if giving the boy’s brain a running theme song of his panic. Beyond this, Dylan is haunted by the thing he cannot confess, even to his father. It’s grief and guilt tangled with kid logic, which makes sense to him like the expectation the escaped convict would come calling or The Djinn magic would work. Charbonier and Powell embrace this perspective with low camera angles that mirror the boy’s point of view. They showcase scary imagery that might be real or might be imagined by a child trapped in grief.
In this way, The Djinn becomes a fascinating follow-up to the directing duo’s first film, The Boy Behind The Door. Another child-centered horror story, that one pulls from true crime more directly, centering on two young boys who are abducted on their way to a baseball game. While both films focus on a boy imprisoned in a home with an ambiguous threat, there’s nothing supernatural at play in their first film. Charbonier and Powell embed us with their boys, trapping us in a wretched remote house along with them, rooting for their escape—because rescue is out of the question. As grown-ups, we know far better than the boys what horrors they might face if they can’t slip away from their abductors. Tension grows from this disconnect between what we know and what they do not. With The Djinn, Charbonier and Powell explore magical thinking, playing with whether the threat Dylan faces is real or all in his head. We don’t know for sure what’s real or if we can trust Dylan’s POV. It’s an intriguing veer into psychological horror, even if the premise ultimately feels thin, turning the final act into a bit of a ragged tumble.
Nonetheless, Charbonier and Powell know how to brew atmosphere and empathy, creating child characters who feel fleshed out and not like precocious poppets to be pitied or fawned over. Their films show greater respect for children, validating their fears and acknowledging their bravery in facing them, however reckless that might be. So, in the end, I’m recommending you seek out The Djinn and watch out for The Boy Behind The Door, which is coming this summer.
The Djinn opens in select theaters, on digital, and VOD on May 14. The Boy Behind the Door debuts on Shudder on July 29.
Header Image Source: IFC Midnight