Every single day, a huge number of cases involving child cruelty take place all over the world (don’t worry, we’re not about to bombard you with a tear-jerking video to the sound of Sigur Rós’ ‘Hoppípolla’). In Case 39, we are introduced to this distressing subject and made to feel quite worried as we accompany the suffering of little Lilith (Jodelle Ferland); however, as the story develops, we realise she’s a character right off the ‘evil children’ section of the Argos catalogue, one of the sources of lifeblood for horror films throughout history. Classics such as The Bad Seed, Village Of The Damned, Children Of The Corn, The Omen and The Exorcist are the very proof that possessed or evil children can be more frightening than any masked psychopath, vengeful spirit or gigantic monster.
Every work of fiction has its twists, and those of Case 39 aren’t exactly hard to guess from its very beginning. The unsuspecting audience has a bunch of religious references ostensibly shoved down its metaphorical collective throat, starting with the girl’s name, from the moment the camera focuses on Case 39’s file – and quickly discovers that Lilith isn’t exactly a model child; such early revelations could enhance Case 39’s potential for unintentional humour. The first Hollywood film directed by Christian Alvart, who would later direct the disaster that was Pandorum, and also the first horror film featuring Renée Zellweger since 1994’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation this film is, to put it simply, complete and utter rubbish.
“Don’t worry darling, I’ve already called the guys from Homes Under The Hammer to come and sort out this awful kitchen…”
Zellweger does try hard(ish) as the idealistic and lonely social worker Emily – pulling all sorts of weird faces, sporting the wet hair look and ending up looking more like John Travolta in Battlefield Earth – but the comedy value stems even harder from the way in which script establishes her character. In this sort of thriller, the lead character is inevitably naïve – and this is usually accompanied by a couple of ‘counterweights’, two opposing co-adjuvants, the sceptic and the believer, portrayed here by Ian McShane and Bradley Cooper. The problem with Case 39 is that Emily is far more naïve than usual. There’s also that thing with her childish acting voice, reminiscent of a Disney character. Oh, and also the fact that she’s so poor at conveying any emotion – learning about the death of a loved one or realising she’s out of strawberry jam are just about the same thing to her.
Once she arrives at the little girl’s parents’ house, she meets Edward and Margareth Sullivan (Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O’Malley) and their daughter, the shy-looking (check out the name of the beast!) Lilith. Although they try to act normal, Emily just knows there’s something wrong…
“For the love of God, will someone PLEASE turn off that awful new Ed Sheeran album?!”
After that, just notice the speed at which she decides the best thing to do is to have Lilith come live with her, having rescued her from her parents who were in process of sticking her in the oven like a Christmas roast. Not even a whole day later, Emily is already convinced that the girl is evil. After thinking she saved the little girl’s life, Emily started facing a nightmare: people around her began to die mysteriously; it’s at this point that she discovers the enemy is sleeping under her very roof, a demon disguised as a seemingly innocent girl. But come on – just look at the girl’s name! A thriller’s success – and that of any film, generally speaking – depends, first and foremost, on our ability to empathise with the lead character. But who can bond with a bland character with no personality whatsoever? There are fictional heroes who make the wrong decisions – while still managing to generate some level of empathy – but even to make the wrong decision, you need to do so with confidence.
Although the plot did have the potential to be interesting, it sucks up to other examples of the same genre, such as The Omen and The Ring, and because these are so much better, Case 39 has its flaws highlighted even more. The creepy atmosphere established in the opening sequence is completely lost along the movie. The demon, which should be quite smart, isn’t so; apparently it merely needs to be asleep to be eliminated. The social worker loses her mobile phone and doesn’t even realise it until two days later – (not) very credible in this day and age.
“Sleep with one eye open*, gripping your pillow tight…”
* two eyes may be available. T&C apply.
To make matters worse, Alvart’s direction is so monotonous he can’t create a single interesting scene, moving blandly through a number of microwaved clichés and precisely three jump-scares; and that’s only to get us ready for the scene with a demon that’s one part CGI and three parts embarrassing. The whole final sequence comes across as artificial, finishing off with a conclusion that suffered from that severe lack of balls that’s so characteristic of certain American movies. A heavy-duty demon that drowns because it couldn’t get out of a car? Please…a pessimistic ending from time to time doesn’t hurt anyone.
Filmed in 2006 but not released until 2009, Case 39 went through the famous behind-the-scenes curses, such as a fire that destroyed part of the set, an event that fed right into the old morbid theories that we all like to hear about. This was one of those films that was first released abroad and only then in its home country, the USA, a tell-tale sign that local investors weren’t very interested in such a product. Case 39 puts all its eggs on a somewhat creepy little girl’s basket to support itself as a film and forgets to either tell an interesting story with a minimum amount of logic or to exploit some kind of horror, and ultimately doesn’t bring anything new to its plot and much less to its genre.
“They see me rollin’, they hatin’…”
Top quote: “What kind of people put their kid in an oven?” Intriguing question indeed.
Rating: You will wish that set fire had burned everyone and everything to do with this movie. Especially any records of it.
All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures Corporation.