Supernatural horror Case 39, director Christian Alvart’s English language debut, has had a chequered route to the big screen and sat in limbo for some time before a release was firmed up, so much so that his follow up film, Pandorum, beats it into theatres. For star Zellweger though, who has a number of horror credits to her name from earlier in her career, it has not been a particularly successful return to the genre.
The Oscar winner stars as Emily Jenkins, a dedicated social worker who, for all intents and purposes, is married to the job. The children she sees on a daily basis are abused, unloved and living a life of pain and misery, especially little Lillith Sullivan (Ferland), a seemingly precocious young girl, damaged at the hands of her parents who want to ‘send her to hell.’ In steps Emily who rescues the young girl and signs up to be her foster mother, to provide her with the safe and supportive environment she needs. Only once the little sprog moves in things don’t go exactly to plan; people start dying in the most mysterious and violent of ways and Lillith’s now sectioned parents proclaim it to be the work of their delightful daughter.
Scary little girls with dark hair have become something of a perennial horror staple in recent years. The US penchant for adapting J-horror success stories such as The Ring and The Grudge for subtitle-fearing audiences brought all manner of dark-haired pale-skinned nightmares to our screens, and the similarly themed Orphan and the home grown The Children saw the younger generation visiting a whole load of anguish, shall we say, upon their elders. Case 39 then has ample company with its work cut out to distinguish itself from the pack, and it does so, but in the worst possible ways.
The secret behind little Lillith’s malevolence is, sadly, really quite apparent from the get-go, especially to genre-aficionados and Zellweger and the rest of the cast aren’t done any favours by Ray Wright’s overbearingly perfunctory script, with the dialogue offering up more than a few instances of cringe-worthy jibber-jabber. It is the execution though, which undermines the film’s integrity most. Alvart clearly favours scares over tension and loads the film with the former while completely ignoring the latter. There are countless jumps to be had, but most are delivered through actions inconsequential to the story (an alarm clock charms unexpectedly, a loud knock at the door) with little suspense generated even as Lillith becomes ever more unpredictable and threatening.
Ferland is utterly convincing as the troublesome young girl at the centre of the mayhem, and there are a handful of effective scenes (Emily’s social worker colleague has a particularly memorable encounter with a bathroom full of hornets) but the film mishandles its premise, playing genre clichés as if they were new, and a lack of wit, invention or self-awareness sees the whole shebang descend into farce. But of the entertaining variety, you see?