Social worker Emily Jenkins (Renée Zellwegger) has to become personally involved and fight hard to save 10 year old girl Lillith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland) from her seemingly abusive and murderous parents. As Jenkins becomes more attached to the girl, an even darker truth begins to reveal itself. By the time she starts to question why Lillith's parents had huge bolts on the inside of their bedroom door, she and those she loves are already in grave danger.
Case 39 was shown at FrightFest 2009 with the caveat that we must all behave ourselves and not record anything because there were representatives of the studio in the picture house with night vision goggles. It was an affront easily shrugged off in the excitement of a new horror film about to begin, but it also served to announce Case 39 as a big studio product. Disappointingly, a big, glossy and ultimately hollow studio product is all it is.
Director Christian Alvart's last film, the Manhunter inspired Antibodies, was a great hit at FrightFest 2005 so it was a shame to see such a bland, by the book offering this time around. Ray Wright's lacklustre script doesn't offer much to work with, but what little tension there is dissipates quickly in scenes that are flatly shot and simply don't have any real scares or jumps to offer, despite Michl Britsch's best efforts to make you think there are with his enthusiastic score. It's not a good sign when the composer is trying to do your work for you.
Zellwegger is convincing as the over-worked and over-invested social worker whose world is being torn apart by this demon child, but her co-star Bradley Cooper as child psychologist Douglas J. Ames is miscast here. That is not to say that he doesn't do a good job, he's a great actor and proved in Midnight Meat Train that he's got the chops for dark horror. But Ames is clearly a professorial mentor figure to Jenkins, and Cooper's ruddy-cheeked youthfulness undermines his attempts to make that aspect of their relationship convincing. Ian McShane, Kerry O'Malley and Callum Keith Rennie kindly donate some dramatic gravitas but McShane should have had much more to do.
Jodelle Ferland's performance is suitably creepy but a touch too monotonous to be truly disturbing. Neither does she display enough innocence to counterpoint that creepiness and make her a tragic figure. There are no heartbreakingly shocking scenes here like Regan MacNeil urinating on the carpet, there's nothing shocking about the child at all, nothing to make you feel there might be a little girl in there somewhere. Mostly she's not unlike a particularly spoiled manipulative pre-teen.
CGI is greatly overused, another detriment to any tension that might have been building up. One particular death scene involving wasps would have had people squirming in their seats, and me cowering in mine possibly emitting a small shriek, if it hadn't been done with dodgy looking CGI wasps. Real bees were used on Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd in Candyman in 1992 - why not at least use some real wasps (or bees if wasps are too dangerous) to create a horrific death scene, instead of a competently mimed one for which the audience might politely suspend their disbelief?
Horror films don't need big budgets. It's an unwritten horror tradition that you make your film on a relatively small budget and then it makes a lot more back, and most of the time that works. Case 39 suffered from having too much money and not quite knowing what to do with it, so it all went on the stars and the sets. It needed to go on the script. Many directors don't like to admit it, but films are created not with their vision, or the cameras or the actors, but with the written word.
If you're going to do an 'evil child' movie you have a lot to live up to, and the films whose quality you're hopefully aiming for - namely The Exorcist and The Omen - were not done on huge budgets, but began their lives as superb stories and then great, daring scripts. You can make a bad film out of a good script, but you cannot make a good film out of a bad script, no matter how much money or badly rendered CGI you throw at it.