(2009) director Christian Alvert
Case 39 wants to be a more intelligent and frightening horror film, but just is not equipped with the necessary elements to achieve either. In fact, it’s a pretty lame film starring Renée Zellweger and Bradley Cooper. It’s not terribly surprising, knowing that it sat on the shelf for a couple of years after it was filmed before finally getting released last year. That’s not usually an omen of quality.
While it lacks wit and tension, it does have some strange elements in twisting the situation of a potentially abused child and her would-be rescuer. Zellweger plays the case worker, given her 39th case to handle, who discovers Lillith, a strange sweet 10 year old who seems to be living with vicious, anti-social parents. Zellweger manages to save the girl, against many odds, from being cooked alive in the oven by her crazed mom and dad. It’s actually the film’s most affecting scene because at that point, we don’t know what is what yet.
Of course, this is a horror film, so the rescue is the beginning of the twist. What’s strange is that going into help the family, Zellweger’s well-meaning case worker notes the subtle signs of abuse, talks the language of therapy, proposes a psychological explanation for everything. When it turns out that there is a supernatural aspect to the story and that little Lillith may be not only not so innocent but perhaps even a demonic, evil, murderous entity, the film pivots Zellweger’s thinking from caring, nurturing sweetness to suspicious, fearful belief that Lillith is pure evil.
This makes for some really potentially strange sequences, as when Lillith, speaking sweetly and seeking love and companionship, that Zellweger withdraws and starts to act crazy. Actually, if the girl wasn’t a demon, then the way that Zellweger’s character goes from her protector to her tormentor, hating and fearing the child, would seem as pure psychosis. And there are some funny moments as a result. The film’s silliness factor starts hitting code red toward the end, getting kind of amusing in its badness.
There is an interesting contrast with The Last Exorcism (2010), which I had just watched the night prior. In The Last Exorcism, we also have a child with a demon inside, but the protagonists’ approach is one of secular psychological concern to explain and assist. While in The Last Exorcism, when the situation proves too much for kindness and good medical help, all hell breaks loose. In Case 39, while the protagonist begins with that nurturing approach, there is a quick shift into believing the the outrageous and supernatural and a hard-hearted change in attitude toward the child in question. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really have the wherewithal to take these ironies for much besides some emotive violence and a few comical lines.