It almost seems every horror movie this year has shown a kid hugging a pillow or a crucifix hanging on a wall--or both. Case 39 shows both, and adds Renee Zelwegger's puffy-pouting cheeks and coy eyes, which are better suited to her romantic roles. It also shows a little girl named Lillith (Jodelle Ferland) whose suspense-killing name is an obvious clue to her demeanor for any devout horror fan watching.
The 39th case in question concerns overworked Emily's (Renee Zelwegger) new assignment. Emily is a social worker who hates the overwhelming case load she struggles with but can't ignore any child in need. Lillith is Emily's 39th case and appears to be in need. Her parents want to kill her.
They almost do, but Emily's persistence manages to get Detective Barron (Ian McShane) involved just in time to stop them from roasting Lillith in the oven. Her parents head to the psychiatric ward while Lillith does a little social work of her own to eventually convince Emily to look after her. After Lillith moves into Emily's home is when those puffy-pouting cheeks work overtime with growing worry. Emily finally notices all those quirky things you should never ignore in a horror movie like: Lillith's parents locking themselves in their room at night with big honking bolts on their bedroom door; an ominous looking scratch in the wood floor; people start dying when phone calls are made from Emily's cell phone late at night; Lillith tells Emily she better provide lots of ice cream and nice things to say or else.
Here is where I take note of my disappointment. I thought Case 39 would try a different direction for a change. I hoped for a kid plagued by demons, not a demon-kid plaguing adults. We've seen evil kids before: pony-tailed Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, sinister little Damien in The Omen, long-haired Samara in The Ring, and tightly-wound Esther in The Orphan. Ferland can hold her own against any of them, but the formula here ignores interesting possibilities an innocent child cursed by demon playmates can muster. Instead we have typical, all-purpose, no-seasoning-required scares coming from Emily's growing realization she was wrong about Lillith and her parents.
Some tension is here, but it is straighforward and builds predictably, although Christian Alvart directs us through it with strong imagery as shown in the oven-stuffer attempt by Lillith's parents--which shows another use for duct tape I bet you never thought of--a jaw slamming hard enough into a refrigerator door for both to crunch, sparingly used (until the end, anyway) CGI-enhanced demonic features playing across innocent little Lillith's face when she gets mad, and token growls and voices not of this world. True to Hollywood Horror Think, Zelwegger even gets a chance to run screaming in the rain wearing little more than raindrops. She does have great gams, though.
Ray Wright adds a subtle twist to the story: how will Emily, a social worker, deal with a kid-looking monster everyone else sees as an innocent angel? But he never brings it to a boil after the simmering set up. If you've seen The Crazies and Pulse remakes, you already know his approach. It's adequately underwhelming, lacking any finer points of fear-making, like making us guess what's going to happen next instead of worrying about how creatively he can make people die.
The breakout point should have come at this scene: Lillith sitting across the table from psychologist Doug (Bradley Cooper); he thinks he's talking to a little girl who's scared, but she makes him fearful for his own safety. Wright follows the path of least resistance and uses the moment to set up a nasty death later. It's a wasted opportunity for mounting real tension, just so the CGI boys could gimmick up another corpus exitus?
Still, those gams are worth a look.