Title: Case 39
Year of Release: 2009
Date Viewed: February 12, 2011
MPAA Rating: R
If The Omen and Case 39 were siblings, Case 39 would be the younger less mature of the two that spends its life trying to ride the success of the older brother. The Stephen of the Baldwins. Or the Clint of the Howards. Or the Ted of the Raimis. You get the idea.
In this horror thriller, Renee Zellweger plays social worker Emily Jenkins. Emily has years of experience in improving the quality of life for children with troubled upbringings. Her latest case will be different than anything she had encountered before.
Ten year-old Lilith (Jodelle Ferland) is a seemingly normal girl with normal problems. Her case reaches Emily's desk under reports of a drastic dip in academic grades and suspicion of parental abuse. Emily investigates the family firsthand to find the parents exhibiting strange behavior in an almost zombie-like state. Shortly thereafter, she receives a phone call from Lilith herself pleading for someone to calm her panic. Fearing the worst, Emily and Detective Mike Barron (Ian McShane) rush back to the house just in time to save Lilith from being roasted alive inside the kitchen oven. The parents are arrested and sent to a mental institution while Lilith is now under the care of the state.
Lilith forms an emotional attachment to Emily and pleads to live with her instead of a foster family. Initially reluctant because of the possibility of work interference, Emily agrees at the cost of sacrificing personal involvement in Lilith's legal proceedings.
But the nightmare is only beginning. Various murders and suicides are happening to Emily's circle of colleagues. All of the cases involve a phone call initiated by Lilith and received by the victims. What sort of evil force could be responsible for these horrific events? Emily is determined to close this case for good even if it means breaking her legal binds and directly confronting Lilith for the truth.
If you've seen The Omen before, Emily's secret should be no surprise. This twist is practically spoonfed before the second act even gets rolling. The movie wastes away the offensive and manipulative oven scene through its own impatience, effectively (and ironically) cooking its own goose. Despite this, the film wrongly assumes that the audience should be on the edge of their seats. A big part of excitement from psychological thrillers like this is watching events unfold without the full knowledge of who is responsible for the deeds and how they are done. Case 39 has the laziest effort for guesswork I've seen from a movie in quite some time.
Renee Zellweger was a good choice for the lead role. As someone who has spent a fair share of time in front of real child guidance counselors, I found her warm persona and sensitive nature to be very believable. Jodelle Ferland deserves some credit too since the experience factor always presents a challenge for getting a memorable performance out of a child actor. It's too bad she was doomed from the start to be overshadowed by Isabelle Fuhrman's similar role in the slightly better Orphan.
I get the impression that someone in post-production must have realized that the movie didn't have a chance on succeeding with narrative alone. So we are treated to a thorough demonstration of what I like to call the "horror lever." When switched on, all the usual trademarks of dark thrillers are everywhere. The lighting is dim. The music is soft and low-key. The characters act somber and often nervous even if there is no reason to. This persists until the horror lever is switched off and normalcy returns. Case 39 leaves the switch turned on for the entire movie. It's never given a chance to reboot, regroup or even breathe. Artistic adrenalin can be too much of a good thing. Midway through the film, I was already exhausted. So much time had been spent guessing when the music would suddenly shriek or when the next wave of shadows would appear that there was no energy left to connect with characters. It's all an exercise in compensating for non-existent suspense. The payoff scenes don't fare much better. Some of the deaths are so unintentionally comical that they could have been ripped straight out of a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel.
Sometimes it's best just to keep the ships at port if the seas don't look promising. Or in this "case," leave it in the desk file.