Perhaps the most significant problem with the recent supernatural thriller Case 39 is that you feel like you’ve seen it 38 times before.
Beyond the abundantly familiar premise involving an “evil child,” this horror film is also over-long at an hour-and-forty-nine minutes. That considerable span grants the viewer plenty of time to puzzle over internal inconsistencies as well as confusing character motivations and overall meaning. Even the surfeit of “jump scares” (an alarm clock ringing, a dog barking, etc.) can’t cloak the movie’s paucity of ingenuity or originality.
Director Christian Alvart does his best to ramp up the terror in the last half of the film, but even in terms of genre stylistics Case 39 relies on by-now old tricks. For instance, the herky-jerky inhuman movement we’ve come to associate with ghouls in the post-The Ring (2002) Age is trotted out here; as are the almost-subliminal face morphing tricks, which — through the auspices of CGI — briefly reveal the “true” appearance of a malevolent demon (Paranormal Activity ).
About the only things the film really has going for it are a sterling cast that includes Rene Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland, Ian McShane, Bradley Cooper and Callum Keith Rennie, plus the occasional sense of discomfort that some of the violent imagery generates.
Case 39 is the tale of a single, over-worked social worker, Emily (Rene Zellweger) who practices a “pro-active” kind of counseling. The opening scenes in the film — during which Emily is burdened with another new case (39) to add to her already-considerable workload — are actually pretty good.
Emily is trapped in a chaotic office cubicle at work in a state agency, and the film’s color palette is grungy and washed-out, giving the impression of a world in collapse, of bureaucracy overloaded as endangered children pay the price for adult mistakes. In this world, the phones are always ringing, red-tape trumps compassion, and endangered children are represented by stacks of files to be handled…eventually.
When Emily investigates the case of young Lilith Sullivan (Ferland), a girl who falls asleep at school and shows “serious signs of neglect,” Case 39 reaches its apex of efficiency.
In a very disturbing early sequence, Emily arrives at the Sullivan house (rendered in extreme high angle) and interviews Lilith’s parents. Her father (Rennie) is a monstrous, whispering creep who refuses to speak directly to Emily and who gives the film more kinetic energy than any of its CGI transformations. This scene works because we never learn precisely what Rennie’s character whispers to his “emotionally enslaved” wife during the interview, but his physicality and facial expressions are the stuff of coiled, secretive rage and perversion. Rennie exudes dramatic, sick menace and basically steals the show.
Emily just knows something is wrong with this guy, and after a distressing late-night call from Lillith, rushes with her friend on the police force, Mike (McShane) to save the child from abusive parents. What Mike and Emily discover at Lilith’s house is authentically frightening. Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan have stuffed the little girl into an oven…and turned on the gas.
I must admit, this imagery unsettled me profoundly. The sight of supposedly loving parents trapping their child inside a compact oven and attempting to burn her alive is one of nearly-archetypal horror (think the witch in Hansel and Gretel).
Of course, as is obvious from Case 39’s plodding script, Emily draws the incorrect conclusions about Lillith and her nutty family. The child is no innocent, and the Bible-thumping parents have good reason for wanting her dead; reasons that Emily eventually understands, especially after she brings Lillith into her own home and her friends mysteriously begin to die in strange “accidents.”
Sound familiar? You’ve seen this movie before, no?
A recent variation on this theme was seen in the outstanding 2009 film, Orphan. But Case 39 just isn’t in the same league.
For one thing, it takes a woefully long time for the dramatis personae to reach the obvious conclusion that Lillith is actually bad news. The result is that you’re always way ahead of the narrative and even the characters themselves, a fact which makes the movie feel both long-winded and unsurprising. There aren’t any real twists or turns in Case 39, and so audiences may grow frustrated or even restless as Emily tentatively goes step-by-step investigating the puzzle of the child’s true nature.
Because the plot is so familiar and because it proceeds without much variation from other films of this type, an engaged mind will begin to ask meaningful questions. Like: how come young Lillith can escape a fiery house (while locked in her bedroom…) but not a car sinking into the water? She seems to teleport in the first instance, and that unique skill would certainly come in handy in the second.
And furthermore, what is Lillith really after? A character in the film suggests that she feeds on “kindness and decency,” and that “she wants to know what your idea of Hell is and make you live in it.” So basically, the child just wants to make Emily miserable? Well, it looks like the Department of Social Services was already doing a pretty good job of that before Lillith even entered the picture…
Movies about “evil children” are popular in the genre (and with audiences, generally) because we fear the corruption of innocence in our culture today, and because youngsters in film universally represent tomorrow, or the future. If children are evil, it’s the end of hope; the beginning of the end of the human race. Case 39 treads into that territory, but ultimately in a confusing and contradictory way.
By that, I mean that there seems to be a critique of child psychology embedded in the film. Emily asks Doug if he remembers a time when people were simply “bad,” “before everything had a diagnosis and a justification.” That’s an interesting observation, which I’ve thought about myself in regards to John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), but the movie doesn’t really present anything besides child murder as an alternative to clinical diagnosis and justification. The film gets a lot of mileage out of Lillith mocking Emily and her profession. “We help families communicate and learn healthier ways to resolve conflict,” etc.
But what’s the point? That sometimes children are Evil and you have to pull a Susan Smith on them and drown them instead of trying to help them?
I’m not certain that’s really an argument the movie is serious about making, or any movie would want to make. But all the negative talk in Case 39 about psychology makes you think the movie is trying to make a serious point about how our contemporary culture views evil.
For a really good, consistent (and deeply disturbing) horror movie on that topic, about psychology and the nature of evil, I’d recommend Mr. Frost (1990) instead.
Still, there are some elements of Case 39 that I admired. Director Alvart has a way of finding interesting visual “moments” that enhance the picture and the movie’s overall sense of dread. For instance, I like the repeating imagery of Lillith spinning round and round in a chair at Emily’s office, like she’s a tornado or some other force of (super)nature.
I also admired an almost throwaway shot of a frightened Emily stepping across a case-file on her hallway floor. By that point in the film, Emily has wounded her foot, and so she leaves a small blood spatter on the psychological assessment form; a nice way of suggesting that blood-letting and violence has supplanted psychology.
There’s even a wicked visual joke late in the film: As Emily prepares to burn down her own house (starting with Lillith’s room), we get an extreme close-up, insert shot of a book of matches. Clearly visible on the matchbook is the warning “keep away from children.”
Well, except in case of demon, anyway…
Make no mistake, there are plenty of worse horror movies than Case 39, but for the most part this one feels rote and by the numbers. “She saw you coming a mile away,” Mr. Sullivan tells Emily, late in the film, and that observation is also the best description of the film’s overly-familiar story.
You’ll see it coming a mile away.