Case 39 (2009)
Reviewed by Gareth Jones
Starring Renée Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland, Ian McShane, Kerry O'Malley
Directed by Christian Alvart
On the heels of the critical success of director Christian Alvart’s Antikörper (Antibodies), it came as a bit of a shock that his studio follow-up, Case 39, found itself floundering without release for two years. That may actually be a blessing in itself, as anyone sitting through this monotonous exercise in harmless studio gloss would easily be forgiven for doubting the potential quality of Alvart’s newest.
*This review contains spoilers.*
The film follows Renée Zellweger as married-to-the-job social worker Emily Jenkins. When the case of a young girl, Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland) falls across her desk she finds herself deathly worried for the child’s safety. You see, mommy and daddy are a strange bunch, refusing to co-operate fully and, Lilith reveals, secretly planning to send their daughter to hell. After her boss, Wayne (Adrian Lester), refuses to investigate any further Emily pulls in a favour from Detective Mike Barron (a thoroughly bored-looking Ian McShane) and soon the pair of them are just in time to rescue sweet little Lilith from a thorough baking in the kitchen oven.
With her parents incarcerated, Lilith’s predicament tugs Emily’s heart-strings sufficiently to take her into her own foster care. When those close to her begin dying in strange ways, however, Emily comes to the realisation that Lilith is involved – her very influence seemingly to blame for acts of murder and suicide.
The trailer for Case 39 had me very excited, as it appeared to promise a “pursued by an evil force” jamboree similar to Jaume Balagueró’s atmospheric Darkness. Instead we get handed a pitifully basic “evil child” story. Lilith is, in fact, a demon which moves from family to family working her way through the members for her own monstrous pleasure. In an exceedingly trite turn, Lilith kills by causing her victims to hallucinate their greatest fears – leading them to murder or suicide, whichever she intends. Her initial influence is delivered to characters via telephone calls, mostly static with a deep voice on one or two of them. These calls are one of the film’s largest potential creep factors, but it falls straight over. They aren’t scary at all – sounding a little like the unenhanced EVP recordings in White Noise only without the inherent creep factor of ghostly voices.
The death scenes are just as fluffed, with one in particular filled to the brim with prospective goods almost completely spoiled by CGI and just far, far too much “studio picture” sheen. The death of another major character carries absolutely no tension whatsoever. Instead of feeling anxious or expectant in any way, I only thought “Oh look, he’s scared of dogs.” One kill scene does have a nice amount of impact, but comes late in the day. By that point it’s just much too little, too late.
On a technical level, Case 39 is through-and-through a quintessential mid-budget studio picture. The same kind of formulaic polish found in fare such as The Unborn can be seen here.
Everything from shot composition, lighting and sound to the special effects are uninteresting and uninspired. Alvart’s potential can be glimpsed in brief moments, such as an in-the-closet jump scare and subsequent screaming chase through the rain, and the climactic scene is relatively tense (once you get past the oh-so-original “She can only hurt you if you’re scared!” portion) but again it’s not enough to warrant sitting through the torrent of mediocrity that surrounds them.
Performances across the board are about as effective as they need to be. Nobody particularly raises their heads above the drudgery (as mentioned earlier, the very capable Ian McShane is the biggest offender sleepwalking his way through most of the film), except possibly Callum Keith Rennie (recently seen as John Wakefield in "Harper’s Island") as Lilith’s quietly devastated father. Zellweger doesn’t embarrass herself, in fact it seems like she’s trying the hardest but her efforts are thwarted by the sheer been-there-done-that nature of it all. Jodelle Ferland as Lilith also won’t be entering the “evil kid” hall of fame any time soon with her laborious portrayal. The fault of that may fall to the script, but the fact that Lilith is soulless is quite boring if it’s merely displayed through almost entirely vapid line delivery. It’s not scary, but tedious.
I was never a fan of Alvart’s Antikörper, finding it much too preachy and pretentious – but it was at least occasionally riveting.
If Case 39 is indicative of where Alvart is heading once studios get involved, we may be geared for some major disappointment in the future. Hopefully it’s a blip – a fledgling director trying to find his feet in the American studio world, which I’m sure will do decent business among the undemanding weekend-horror crowd and Zellweger fans when it eventually sees the light of day. Nobody else need apply.
2 out of 5
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