DIR: Christian Alvart • WRI: Ray Wright • PRO: Steve Golin, Kevin Misher, Scott Thaler • DOP: Hagen Bogdanski • ED: Mark Goldblatt • DES: John Willett • CAST: Renée Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland, Ian McShane
Every so often, truly original, groundbreaking horror films come along that set the mould for future installments in the genre. The Haunting, The Omen, The Exorcist, Halloween, The Blair Witch Project are examples of such classics. We also get second and third wave movies that pay homage to such classics in fresh ways to good effect, albeit borrowing heavily. The slasher horror genre owes a huge debt to John Carpenter, and the Friday the 13th and Scream films would not have been made without Halloween. The recent gem, Paranormal Activities uses Blair Witch’s home video DIY aesthetics and The Haunting’s use of minimalist visuals and disorienting sounds but still stands firmly on its own. This latest attempt at a horror by German director Christian Alvart does not fit into either category.
Case 39 tells the story of Emily (Rene Zellweger), an overworked social worker whose latest assignment (her 39th I believe) concerns Lillith (Jodelle Ferland), a ten-year-old girl who the social services suspect is the victim of parental abuse. After meeting the parents, a skeletal anaemic-looking mother and a father with a strange penchant for drilling large holes in his basement, Emily believes something strange is going on but has no proof until she receives a nocturnal phone call from Emily, prompting herself and her policeman friend Mike (Ian McShane) to pay a visit. They rescue Lillith from the oven, where her parents were cooking a child Sunday roast. When the parents are duly dispatched to a mental institution, Emily goes beyond her professional remit by taking care of the distraught child. This is where the real fun begins. When friends of Emily’s are killed in strange and sinister circumstances, she suspects that her recent adoptee may have been responsible, and her parents’ assertion that she is the devils spawn may have some validity. When Emily finds she cannot escape from this ten-year-old hellraiser, the crime of infanticide seems a plausible alternative.
Case 39 tries to subscribe to the antichrist child horror sub-genre which started way back in the 1970s with The Exorcist and The Omen, where supposedly sweet little innocent children have never been portrayed in such a sinister, shocking light. Nods are made to both movies, in one scene where Lillith is swinging slowly on a creaking chair, in an isolated office without facial expression, echoing Damian’s tricycle antics in The Omen. Another scene where Lillith turns a counseling session on its head by exposing the fears and insecurities of Douglas (Bradley Cooper), a child psychologist, is well crafted and tense, and strangely reminiscent of Regan’s ability to get inside the head of the priest in The Exorcist. Standout scenes are few and far between in Case 39. A lot of scenes, including the aforementioned child cooking scene and another preposterous scene involving flies the size of pterodactyls oozing from various orifices of Douglas’ body are farcical and comical. A plethora of standard horror devices straight out of the John Carpenter book of tricks (false alarms, figures in backs of cars and wardrobes, loud knocking on doors) are also employed, but have been so overused over the years to become stale and tensionless.
The performances of the actors are not strong enough to carry the film. Oscar®-winner Zellweger’s performance as the stereotypically downtrodden but awfully nice social worker, contorts her face so often it is hard to know if she is smiling, grimacing, crying or smelling some hideous odour. Ian McShane’s thespian talents are not utilized, due in equal parts to his one-dimensional, cardboard cutout character and atrocious dialogue. The child star Jodelle Ferland is at her creepy best when not saying much, but is prone to stage school dramatics when a long speech is demanded of her.
Maybe I’m missing the point with this film. It could be a postmodern satire of the horror genre. Maybe it’s a treatise on the modern family; unruly children and their passive non-resistant parents, a call to arms for parents to restore discipline. The film actually supplies more laughs than scares but somehow I doubt it’s what the director intended. Despite containing some chilling and disturbing scenes, Case 39 is essentially a mishmash of clichéd horror set pieces that do not gel into a tension-filled coherent whole. Shot in 1996, it has taken four years to secure a release date. At one point Douglas asserts that his social worker friend cannot save the world. Paramount will surely be hoping that Zellweger’s star status will save the film.
Case 39 is released 5th Mar 2010