A social worker takes in a troubled girl with a pale face and big creepy eyes and is then like “hey, why are all these people dying” in Case 39, a horror movie.
A horror movie in so many respects.
Emily Jenkins (Renee Zellweger), social worker and clearly not a horror movie fan, is overburdened and yet takes on one more case — the Sullivan family: creepy teeth-grinding father Edward (Callum Keith Rennie), blurry-eyed mother Margaret (Kerry O’Malley) and daughter Lilith (Jodelle Ferland), who has pale pale skin and big eyes LIKE EVERY HORROR MOVIE CHILD EVER. (Mix it up. Just once make the supernaturally disturbed child a red-head with freckles or something.) On the home visit, the family refuses to admit to any problems, despite the gloom dripping off their walls and the grave the father is digging in the basement. When they come in to the office, Emily tries to get Lilith to open up about the abuse she’s suffering but Lilith won’t say anything specific, only that her parents are conspiring among themselves to send her to hell. Later, Emily, whose scrunchy Zellweger mug grows scrunchier with each minute of concern, gives Lilith her phone number and tells her to call if she ever gets scared.
Naturally, one dark night, Lilith calls, alerting Emily that something is amiss. Emily calls in her buddy, police detective Barron (Ian McShane), and the two break down the door, just as the Sullivans are about to murder Lilith in a particularly gruesome fashion. Emily does a lot of patting of Lilith’s head and telling her she’s safe now, but Lilith big-eyes that she wants to come and live with Emily, not stay in the group home where children nearly killed by their creepy parents are usually put.
Not usually a soft touch — Emily is so job-focused she has put off not only a family but even a relationship with child psychologist/sexy beard-wearer Doug (Bradley Cooper) — Emily relents and takes temporary custody of Lilith.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Case 39 starts off grim and serious, trudging down the well-worn story path of a horror movie with a creepy mysterious child at the center, and then somewhere about 20, 25 minutes from the end it gets kind of hilarious. You get hints at what’s coming earlier on — there are some CGI hornets that are particularly goofy, Ian McShane is so totally wrong for whatever it is he’s supposed to be doing. But then there’s this part where Zellweger’s character sort of flips out and becomes either a righteous soldier in the battle between good and evil or the world’s worst parent-figure. Her acting goes from indifferently bad to just so much shrieking. It’s not so funny that it’s worth sitting through the preceding hour-and-whatever of movie, but it does take a strange experience and make it stranger and campy.
With lesser actors, Case 39 would be a bad but forgettable entry in the throw-away horror genre. With this cast, though, it becomes a bizarre and embarrassing exercise in failure.
Rated R for violence and terror, including disturbing images. Directed by Christian Alvard and written by Ray Wright, Case 39 is an hour and 49 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Paramount Vantage.