Nothing scary here. Judge Gordon Sullivan used to live in Midwich.
Try this at your next dinner party: tell people you find children incredibly scary. My guess is that you'll get a lot of shocked faces, mutters, and people avoiding you for the rest of the evening. Really, you're just saying what Hollywood has been screaming at us for decades. Starting at least as far back as The Bad Seed in the 1950s, continuing up through the '60s and '70s with the unholy trilogy of Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen, and culminating in more recent fare like The Ring and all of its offshoots (and this list completely ignores all the films about children plural who go bad like Children of the Corn). Sure some of these films are transparent metaphors about the corruption of innocence, the difficulties in starting a family, or the consequences of environmental and social upheavals, but all share the inclusion of a scary kid as the main villain. To this growing list we may add Case 39 (Blu-ray), a flick that squanders its excellent cast on a tired mishmash of scary child clichés.
Emily (Reneé Zellweger, Bridget Jones' Diary) is a harried social worker handling twice as many cases as she should when her boss drops Case 39 on her desk. The subject is Lilith (Jodelle Ferland, Tideland), a young girl whose grades have suddenly dropped. During Emily's first visit Lilith's parents seem especially skittish. Emily fears for Lilith's safety, so when she calls one night, Emily enlists the help of Detective Mike Barron (Ian McShane, Deadwood). When the pair arrives at Lilith's house they find her parents attempting to stuff Lilith into the oven. She is rescued and the parents are incarcerated. Taking pity on Lilith, Emily elects to act as her foster parent, but what she doesn't know is that Lilith's parents might not be as crazy as they seem for wanting to get rid of their little girl.
One little detail gives away exactly what kind of film Case 39 is: the girl's name is Lilith. Only Adam and Eve (and now maybe Damien) are more loaded names for characters in fiction. They may as well have named her Hellspawn, because Lilith is a giant blinking sign that says "We've leeched all the suspense out of this film because here's an evil child." After making that horrible decision, the film doesn't disappoint. Pretty much everything else happens in the most predictable, obvious fashion. Aside from a few jump-scares, the film follows the evil little girl through her evil plot to destroy Emily by first causing all her friends to die by what frightens them the most. It's no wonder the film was shelved for three years before finally seeing the light of day.
Sadly, it didn't have to be that way. The film's opening moments have a decent amount of tension as we're introduced to Emily, Lilith, and her parents. The cast, too, is fairly solid. Zellwegger acts appropriately harried as the overworked but still caring social worker, while Bradley Cooper turns up the charm as a child psychologist Emily consults. Ian McShane looks nothing near his sixty-five years as the imposing representative from the police force. I was impressed by Jodelle Ferland's work in Tideland, but she's not exactly give much to do here; generally she's asked to look creepy. However, even with so little to do, she still manages to present an interesting screen presence. With the right script these actors could almost certainly have produced an interesting film, but even their combined talents (which are considerable) can't save the dud of a script.
Case 39 gets exactly the kind of ho-hum release on Blu-ray that it deserves. The AVC encoded transfer is a mixed bag. Many shots look perfectly clear, with loads of fine detail, and colors are generally strong. However, a number of wider shots appear softer. It's not enough to kill the transfer or anything, but does keep it from being a total success. The audio track, though, is all over the place. Part of that is certainly intentional, to set up a contrast between the quiet and loud moments to build tension. However, when the dialogue is inaudibly low and the action painfully loud, the trick doesn't work. That's the case here. When the mix is on, it's great, but too often the dynamic range had me reaching for the remote. Extras start with an eight-minute making of that feels like an EPK, with all the actors talking about how great the project is. Then there are three different featurettes, each looking at a different special effect, that run about four minutes each. Finally, the film offers up 30 minutes of deleted scenes. I'd love to tell you I pored over every minute searching for clues as to what Case 39 might have been. Really, I checked out some of them and they seem like a collection of small bits trimmed here and there that focus on characters rather than moving the plot forward.
It's pretty open and shut: Case 39 isn't worth recommending. The plot's been done before, there's nothing about the direction to make the plot rehash tolerable, and the actors can't make up for these deficiencies, strive though they might. It might (and I stress might) be worth a rental to fans absolutely crazy about the actors, or to those who only get their frights from scary kid flicks.
The film's tagline says it all: guilty.
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