Considering that it’s essentially your standard demonic child movie, I suppose it was inevitable that Christian Alvart’s Case 39 was in for a critical drubbing. Toss in the fact that it’s been sitting around for a couple years and it stars Renée Zellweger—who most of the world is trying to remember why they liked in the first place—and you have a critical massacre in the making. The truth is that as demonic children movies go, it’s really not bad—and the acting makes it seem a little better than that. Not much, but a little.
At bottom, this isn’t awfully unlike last year’s Orphan, except with real supernatural doings as opposed to a solution involving Russian psychotic dwarf asylum escapees. Comparatively, I find the demonic “Boogey! Boogey! Boogey!” business pretty believable. I mean it’s a horror picture, so I can accept the improbable when it isn’t trying to dress itself up as rational or realistic. There’s nothing new being peddled in Case 39, but the movie is reasonably adept at serving up the same old can of worms—or perhaps the same old swarm of hornets would be better suited in this case.
Emily Jenkins (Zellweger) is an overloaded social worker who finds her 38 cases suddenly augmented by the titular case in question: a young girl named Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland, Silent Hill), who may be being abused in some manner by her parents. Just what these apparently good God-fearin’ folks thought they were doing naming their kid “Lilith” is never addressed, but it’s obvious to Emily that Edward (TV actor Callum Keith Rennie) and Margaret Sullivan (Kerry O’Malley, TV’s Brotherhood) simply don’t have Lilith’s best interests at heart. Of course, Emily is right, otherwise we’d have no plot.
Naturally, no one else sees the problem—so what if Pa is digging what looks suspiciously like a grave in the basement? Emily’s concerns cannot be ignored, however, when she makes cop friend Detective Barron (Ian McShane) help her rescue the kid and they find Lilith’s parents in the process of trying to bake her in an oven they didn’t even bother to preheat. Mayhem follows. The parents are put away and Lilith manipulates her way into Emily’s house.
Bad stuff starts to happen and Emily comes to realize that just maybe there was some reason for the generally frowned-upon parenting techniques evidenced by the Sullivans. Of course, as we all know—and Emily learns—it’s easier to hook up with a demon than it is to get rid of one. Faster than you can say “Damien Thorne,” friends and acquaintances of Emily start suffering unfortunate accidents of the creative-death school of horror—the best easily being quasi-boyfriend Doug’s (Bradley Cooper) infestation of hornets.
No, the movie doesn’t reinvent the demon, but it does have a certain flair thanks to Christian Alvart’s direction. Plus, Jodelle Ferland’s Lilith is perhaps the creepiest demon child ever to grace the screen—and if she’s not, she’s certainly in the running. And while it didn’t exactly remind me of why I originally liked Zellweger, neither did it make matters worse the way last year’s New in Town did. Overall, I had a good time with the film, which is as much as you can reasonably expect from this kind of picture—and certainly it was more than I expected. Rated R for violence and terror, including disturbing images.