Producers:  Ryan Scaringe, Meghan Weinstein and Carter Armstrong    Directors: David Charbonier and Justin Powell   Screenplay: David Charbonier and Justin Powell  Cast: Ezra Dewey, Tevy Poe, Donald Pitts, John Erickson and Rob Brownstein   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: B-

The old adage to “be careful what you wish for” gets another workout in this compact horror movie from David Charbonier (writer-director-production designer) and Justin Powell (writer-director-editor).  Even at a mere eighty-one minutes “The Djinn” feels a mite overextended, but it delivers plenty of tension along the way to a rather nasty ending. 

In terms of construction the picture mimics the classic 1967 Audrey Hepburn thriller “Wait Until Dark,” in which a blind woman is threatened by a trio of criminals in her home.  The action of “Djinn” is similarly confined to the interior of a single apartment, but the protagonist here is a mute young boy, and the danger arises from the three different manifestations of a supposedly wish-fulfilling but actually malevolent spirit.

In the nearly one-man, or more accurately one-boy, show (set in 1989), Ezra Dewey plays Dylan, a twelve-year old kid who’s just moved into a new apartment with his dad (Rob Brownstein), an all-night radio DJ.  Dylan’s unable to speak (a medical procedure indicated later either caused the condition, or was an attempt to correct it).  Though his father is extremely solicitous and supportive, telling the boy he’s perfect just as he is, Dylan blames himself for the absence of his mom, who apparently couldn’t deal with his muteness, and, as a scene showing him wistfully looking out the window at kids playing outside, longs to have a voice so that he can be “normal.”  (The point is reinforced more clumsily when Dad is shown reading “Pinocchio” to the boy.)

Among the things left behind by the former tenant—who died there, of course—Dylan finds, wrapped in burlap, a Book of Shadows, and leafs through the pages to find a page outlining a ritual under the rubric “Desire of Wishes.”  When his father leaves for the night, he decides to use it to realize his dream, and assembles the items needed—a mirror, a clock, and a candle.  All he has to do is put three drops of blood into the candle, light it and express his wish in front of the mirror.  If he survives until midnight, it will be granted. 

Naturally it’s the survival part that will be the problem, Dylan will need to avoid the murderous clutches of three recently-dead people whose bodily form the djinn takes to pursue him.  The first is an escaped convict (John Erickson), the second the old man who died in the apartment (Donald Pitts), and the third Dylan’s own mother (Tevy Poe), who, it happens, committed suicide.

The bulk of the movie consists of Dylan being chased around the apartment by these tactile apparitions and barely escaping them, pausing occasionally to take deep breaths from his inhaler—another leftover, it appears, from his surgery.  This happens over and over again, and, truth be told, though the filmmakers come up with variations on the theme, it can get a tad old by the sixty-minute mark, especially since the apartment’s geography is never made sufficiently clear.

Nonetheless the movie manages to hold one’s attention because of Dewey’s exceptional performance as the resourceful kid and the adroitness of Charbonier and Powell in coming up with bits of business—a boom box and TV (all snowy screen) turning on without warning, a heating unit that rumbles at fortuitous moments, a cordless phone that beeps at bad ones, a kitchen knife, a window that refuses to shatter (with cracks that self-repair)—that help to avoid over-repetition.  Except for Poe’s mom, the djinn manifestations aren’t especially scary, but this is obviously a low-budget effort, and even the modest visual effects pass muster.

In fact the entire crafts passage is better than one might expect.  The sound design by William Tabanou and Nathan Ruyle and score by Matthew James add to the mood, and cinematographer Julian Amaru Estrada manages to use the claustrophobic nature of the setting skillfully.

“The Djinn” isn’t content to follow the lead of “Wait Until Dark” in providing viewers with a triumphant ending.  Instead it goes quite dark, reminding us of the wisdom of Dad’s remark to Dylan about being so obsessed with what we want that we forget what we have—and the book’s warning that the djinn often fulfills its promises in unexpected, and unwanted, ways.  Some might object to the ending, but it provides an unnerving close to a movie that may have a child at its center, but doesn’t aim to be kid stuff.