Justin Powell and David Charbonier: The Djinn | Daily News

Justin Powell and David Charbonier: The Djinn

Justin Powell and David Charbonier made The Djinn for 125,000 dollars. It shows. This is the most intriguing horror film I’ve seen since Lights Out about five years ago. Strictly speaking, it’s not horror, but then nor was Lights Out. The ending is both profound and unsettling: it shocks us less owing to how suddenly it ties up all the knots and unearths all the stones in the story than to how we take the fate it presents its protagonist with.

Not for one moment do we think he deserves it, any less than any child who is mute, struggling to come to terms with the death of a mother, and left alone to fend for himself throughout the night, should. But then that’s the package: you like the ending or you walk away from it. I felt like walking away from it, but that didn’t diminish my interest in the movie as a whole.

Terrifying challenge

When you make a film like this, with such a low budget, to terrify the kids, you tend to milk the tension out of every scene. You don’t show much; you reveal only glimpses, and let the viewer decode the rest. The monster in The Djinn is like those monsters you read and come across in an R. L. Stine story; this is Goosebumps with a genie. Such monsters occupy our nightmares and embody our deepest fears. In an R. L. Stine story, the monster does not, of course, make an appearance early on. Nor does it keep appearing throughout the story. It enters the human realm from whatever dimension it resides in and compels the protagonist to use his or her brains to escape it. The Djinn presents that protagonist with an interesting, but terrifying challenge: he has to survive this creature until midnight.

Genies have always been Janus-faced entities: they can grant you wishes, but those wishes can, and often will, lead to unintended consequences. Aladdin was granted three: they did not so much lead to the fulfilment of his desires as they did to a confrontation with his arch nemeses. The moral of Aladdin wasn’t that you either need to be of royal extraction or have a genie at your disposal to follow your hear; it was that you don’t need either if you have a will to succeed. The caveat in every genie contract is that it’s bound to you only so long as it treats you as its master. In Aladdin, the Disney version that is, Aladdin stops being its master the moment the evil Jaffar rubs the lamp. The Djinn twists this: the boy probably thinks he’s unleashing the beneficent Genie of the Arabian Nights, but what he gets is a malevolent R. L. Stine monster of the week. This isn’t a case of wishing it right; this is a case of wishing it first and enduring the guy who’ll grant what you wish only you pass certain tests.

The beauty with this setup isn’t that it gives the directors plenty of space to experiment, to give us chills without overdoing it, but that it makes us forget a crucial plot element that we remember right before the end credits. In that sense there are two caveats attached to the genie contract in this movie: that you’ll have to survive the creature, and that there may be unintended consequences with the wishes you want fulfilled. How this dovetails with larger themes in the plot, not least of which the physical and mental condition of the protagonist, his harrowing encounter with a mother’s suicide, and his father’s attempts at pacifying him and telling him that he wasn’t responsible for that suicide, is the real bonus in the story: you realise how the directors contort, manipulate, at times deceive and lull us to a false sense of security, and in the end, give the kid what he deserves – or maybe doesn’t.

Careful teaching

In Saki’s “The Storyteller”, a bachelor questions a woman’s storytelling skills, and proceeds to enlighten her nephews and nieces with a typical morality tale. He then twists the tale: the girl who’s at the centre of it, who gets all the awards and medals for being truthful, keeping her cloths clean, learning her lessons diligently, and so on, comes across a wolf out there to eat her. She hides from the wolf, and is in great fear, but when all those medals for her good behaviour clang against each other, it’s the end of the ride. The aunt is furious: she chastises the bachelor for undermining “years of careful teaching.” This is the kind of inversion we see in The Djinn: the boy is good, innocent, and obviously deserves a happy ending, but a happy ending is what the directors deny him, and us.

Mute and disconcerted, he wants redemption for his guilt over his mother’s suicide, and so wants to be someone other than himself; the ending isn’t so much a criticism of boys who want to be someone else as it is a revelation of how those boys should be grateful for the things they have. The boy in Djinn has his father, a person who, given his kindness, every child ought to be grateful for. Yet it’s right at the end he realises how thankful he should be for him. When the father loses his voice, and the boy gains his, it’s catharsis in reverse; you can almost imagine the genie snickering at the tragic end he’s brought about.

Powell and Charbonier are recent filmmakers: they don’t have a Wikipedia page. What we know about them is that they are childhood friends, and that they spent months and years pitching their ideas to the big names and studios. When asked who their influences are, in every other interview they name John Carpenter. Tremendously interested in and intrigued by the horror films of the 1980s, they also cite Child’s Play and Wishmaster as favourites. In these directors and these films, they seem to have found their inspiration; in a way, they are what explain the fascinating intrigues of The Djinn, which take us back to the 1980s: not just literally (for the film is indeed set in that decade), but also in spirit.

The Djinn is not the only film these two childhood chums turned directors have done, nor is it the only horror film with a kid they’ve released to the public. The Boy Next Door (2020), in pretty much the same vein, also reveals a fascination with the macabre and their interest in not giving their characters easy endings. It is this fascination that enlivens The Djinn. While critics have not been unanimously kind towards the latter, audiences have.

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