In TV, a “bottle episode” is an episode of a show produced with limited cast, locations and, naturally, budget. Indeed, it’s often used as a tool to decrease the show’s expenditure, yet the returns are often inversely commensurate – consider the notion “restriction breeds creativity.” The idea of a bottle movie isn’t necessarily a prolific one in the canon of cinematic analysis, though that doesn’t preclude it from being a useful idea; “bottle episode” itself isn’t an exclusive, original, inflexible phrase, having derived from “bottle show.” That particular phrase was coined by “The Outer Limits” creator Leslie Stevens in the 1960s. He described making a bottle show as being like “pulling an episode right out of a bottle like a genie.” And the Arabic word for genie? Djinn.

So it is that The Djinn is a bottle movie both in spirit and in name, yet the creativity one might expect to be bred out of its various restrictions – for most of its short runtime, it’s a movie with one performer with no lines in one location – never quite materializes. Recalling an array of very fine forebears in its genre – horror bottle movies like Night of the Living Dead, The Others and The Mist – it relies on simplistic tools and techniques to engender familiar responses from the viewer. Broadly, the only creativity on display is that of better filmmakers whose better work inspired the lazy rehash that The Djinn ultimately appears to be.

It needn’t be this way. After all, there’s really only so much one can do with so many restrictions placed upon them. The fault, then, lies not in the premise of The Djinn, which finds a young, mute boy, Dylan (Ezra Dewey), alone at night in a new home, summoning an unholy spirit after he discovers an old book of dark magic. He performs a spell, promising him whatever he desires if he can endure one hour in the presence of a djinn; desperate for the ability to speak, he rather blithely takes the gamble, hoping he can last the hour with a force whose malevolent power he hasn’t fully considered. So Dylan must last 60 minutes head-to-head with a manifestation of pure, sentient, devious evil.

Indeed, there’s very little fault in The Djinn’s premise – it’s a very promising one, combining supernatural threat with violent physical threat, establishing a sympathetic, vulnerable protagonist, demarcating clear spatial and environmental parameters that are yet eerily unknown to both viewer and characters. It’s only that writer-director team David Charbonier and Justin Powell seemingly can’t mine much innovation from the premise that, gradually, their movie becomes an ever less satisfying experience. Most everything herein is of adequate quality – Dewey’s acting is solid and expressive, the effects are seamless, Julián Estrada’s cinematography is vivid – but little of it is ever anything greater than adequate. Charbonier and Powell make what they can of their concept, utilizing the confined space and minimal dialogue to decent stylistic effect but never finding that spark of innovation that might enable them to make the very most of it.

Most crucially, The Djinn isn’t an especially scary movie. Smart visual effects and sound design make for a moderately stylish experience, while the humdrum familiarity of the whole affair rather saps the movie of its tension. Without overtly horrifying visuals or the kind of traumatic narrative twists that can truly unsettle the viewer, Charbonier and Powell fall back on scaring us with the kind of things we’ve been scared by before. The demonic hand reaching around the door, the deformed facial features, the unseen presence in a near-pitch black room – this stuff worked well enough when employed by some of those aforementioned better filmmakers in their better work. Here, it’s all so expected, the element of surprise is lost and, without anything to set our nerves on edge, The Djinn thus fails to properly penetrate the viewer’s subconscious as the best horror movies do.

That’s a disappointment, since the movie isn’t a total write-off. Clearly, these filmmakers have talent and an appreciation for the craft of horror filmmaking. Their work is too heavily indebted to the fundamentals of that craft, yet those referential details do a fine job of marking out a promising horror movie in its early scenes. Everything’s primed for a real scare-fest, until the scares don’t arrive as anticipated, then still don’t arrive, then you’ve begun to wonder if they’ll ever arrive at all. For a sillier movie, this mightn’t be such a concern but The Djinn is horror played straight by directors with higher intentions than they can quite fulfil. They’ve just about managed to pull their movie right out of the bottle. It’s not a bad bottle! But it’s not a good movie either.

A should-be shocker that’s light on scares and even lighter on original ideas. Promising stuff from two young filmmakers but, on this basis, that promise has yet to be realized.
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