What should have been a straight-to-video release (if anything), this 2006 production (with a 2007 copyright date) is getting the cold release treatment via Paramount, which decided, what-the-heck, to try and track some lame mileage opposite “The Social Network.” Featuring award-winning actress Renée Zellweger (in her first horror role since 1994’s “Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), Ian McShane and Bradley Cooper, this American-Canadian co-production by German director Christian Alvart apparently had some limited success abroad, has been on DVD for over a year elsewhere, and will probably be on Netflix by the time you leave the theatre—should you be foolish enough to go there in the first place.
Zellwegger is Emily Jenkins, an overworked family services social worker in Oregon who can barely cope with her 38 active cases when her boss tosses another on her desk (hence the film’s title). And thus she gets involved with reclusive 10-year-old Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland) while friendly child psychiatrist Doug Ames tries to soothe the aches of Emily’s harried career in public service. The first visit to the Sullivan residence (a Bates Motel wannabe) is announced with leaden anticipation by Michl Britsch’s ominous score and the proverbial vacant face in an upstairs window. This just foreshadows the derivative nature of the remainder of this non-exciting thriller.
Alvart made his feature debut with the low-budget “Curiosity & the Car” in 1998, followed by “Antibodies” in 2005, neither of which I’ve seen. Paramount press materials noted that when the latter film premiered at The AFI Film Festival, Alvart was named one of “Five Directors to Watch.” He made last year’s “Pandorum” after he filmed “Case 39,” but based on his current attraction, I was wondering which direction AFI was suggesting his career was heading when they so honored him? With “Case 39,” they might award him the M. Night Shyamalan Award in Declining Cinema Excellence.
Back to the story. Lillith’s parents (Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O’Malley) are portrayed as cast-offs from from a demented Wes Craven family—dad’s the silent but angry type, scared mom plays along as the “I’m not gonna say anything because my husband is a pissed-off ax-murderer (or something like that) and sitting next to me” character. And poor Lilith is the meek scared sheep who avoids eye contact and whose school grades have recently plummeted. In reality, things are quite different.
The action heats up when a demoniacal home-cooked meal gets interrupted by Emily and a detective friend (Ian McShane). Within minutes, the parents are out of the picture and presto-chango the child is now Emily’s foster daughter, despite all the sane work-related reasons this won’t work. “You’re a clever little girl,” Emily offers to her new housemate. That’s only the half of it. Strange happenings continue. Lil stirs up a hornet’s nest of fear in one of the main characters as the film meanders from one devilish scene to the next furious escapade, looking more plagiarized by the minute of the films from the “evil child” genre that have preceded it, from last year’s dreary “Orphan” to “The Good Son” (1993) to “The Bad Seed” (1956) and the “Omen” films in their various regurgitations.
Ray Wright’s script plays with the innocent shell of a child as the vessel of evil, leading to escalating levels of disbelief when Emily raises a ruckus about the seemingly polite, demur child. Alvart ups that with a barely effective sense of “am-i-going-mad” as more of her friends and acquaintances get phone calls from Lillith and head over the deep end. Taking a deep breath in this kind of film rarely does any bit of hallucinogenic good, whether you’re in the film or watching it.
Zellwegger’s slumming it here, plain and simple. She looks bored. She looks puffy. They can’t all be gems, but this one’s not even zirconium.
Its time to put the nail in the otherworldly evil child genre until someone comes up with something original. The only thing supernatural about “Case 39” is its ungodly presence on this planet.