Saturday, October 2, 2010

'Case 39' is good but predictable horror film

Case 39 (2010)
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland, Ian McShane, and Bradley Cooper
Director: Christian Alvart
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A social worker (Zellweger) rescues a girl (Ferland) from parents so crazy and abusive they tried to cook her alive in an oven. She takes the child into her home while a foster family is sought, but she soon learns that maybe the parents weren't quite as crazy as it appeared. She soon learns that she may have let a literal demon into her life.

"Case 39" is a well-made but absolutely predictable horror film that is elevated by strong pacing and excellent performances from its stars. There's nothing here you haven't seen before if you've watched at least one "killer kid" movie, be it "The Omen", "Godsend", or even "Bloody Birthday".

Perhaps the best thing about the entire movie is Joelle Ferland as the demon-child Lilly. A common complaint I have about movies is the casting of older actors to play characters younger than they are, something which is usually a bad choice when it comes to roles written for children. Some of the worst examples of this was the 16-year-old Holly Fields as 4th grader in "Seed People" and the busty 20-somethings trying to pass for teens and even younger in "Terror Toons", because in all cases, the actresses don't look like kids, so when they behave like they are, they come across as if they are portraying developmentally retarded characters instead of children. But Ferland, although a teen trying to pass for a ten-year-old is excellent in her part.

It starts with the fact that Ferland is one of the scrawniest 15-year-olds you're likely to encounter outside a Russian women's Olympic gymnastics team training gulag, so she can physically pass for a slightly tall ten-year-old. But she is also a talented actress who is easily convincing as a precocious abused child and who is able to play sweet and inquisitive without coming across as cloying or irritating--with her big doe-like eyes helping immensely when it comes to taking on a wounded puppy air. But because she is older than the character she is portraying, she is equally capable of turning on a sudden, much harder edge, instantly transforming the cute little Lilly into a frightening psychopath that oozes menace from every quietly spoken word and every subtle curl of her lip. The scene were Lilly reveals her true nature to a doomed child psychologist is one of the high lights of the film, and a scene that convinces me that Joelle Ferland is a talent we'll be seeing a lot of in years to come if she sticks with acting and avoids the Lindsay Lohan Trap. But regardless of the future, Ferland has secured herself a place in the Creepy Movie Children Hall of Fame.

Although she is ostensibly the star of the film, Renee Zellweger really has the thankless job of being the victim of Joelle Ferland's demon child. But it's a job she performs admirably. I've heard that some reviewers have stated that Zellweger isn't convincing as a social worker, but I can't see where they're getting that from. To me, she seemed perfectly believable as the sort of dedicated above-and-beyond the call of duty CPS worker who is going to burn out and change careers or become an indifferent supervisor. Zellweger also sells me on her transformation from a woman who is enjoying pretending that she is a mom, to a woman who finds herself trapped and increasingly isolated by her supposed charge. Throughout the film, Zellweger played her part perfectly, whether she was a crusading caregiver or a panicked victim. Going in, I was wondering if she would be able to pull it off, because of other roles I've seen her in and because of the comments I'd heard, but I was instead left wondering what movie those other reviewers watched, because it didn't seem to be this "Case 39".

More often than not, I end up rating a film as predictable as this one at the low end of average, no matter how good the performances or pacing or technical aspects. But this one has the added benefit of a strong ending, one that avoids the habitual "shocking twist" that stopped being shocking 20 years ago, but instead goes with a more classic sort of ending; the film pulls out all the stops in is final 15 minutes and ends when the story is over. No tacked-on crap here... just the end followed by the credits. Even better, we've got a film where good beats evil at its own game, which is always something I find appealing when it comes to films focused on supernatural evils like this one.

There are going to be many, many choices for you to spend your entertainment time and money on this October--with 29 more suggestions coming from this very blog--but if you like supernatural thrillers or horror films about Evil Children, you should make "Case 39" a priority.


    I have just learned that "Case 39" was actually filmed in 2006, but has been sitting on a shelf at Paramount for the last few years. That means that Jodelle Ferland ISN'T a "scrawny 14 year old" as I stated above, but was rather playing a child close to the age she was portraying. Ferland was born in 1994 which would have made her 11 or 12 when the film was actually made.

    That makes her performance all the more impressive, though, because it's backwards from what I first thought. She wasn't a teen playing down but a kid projected a much older image during the psycho moments.

  2. I agree that Ferland is Case 39's greatest attribute. Movie history is littered with evil children but her portrayal of Lilith is a stand-out - which makes it all the more baffling why Case 39's advertising hides the fact that Lilith is the film's villian. I also agree that the ending was satisfying in its definitive nature - no final twist or return from the dead. All in all, Case 39 isn't a great movie but with strong direction and performances, it's a better than expected effort.

  3. I finally saw the preview for "Case 39." Yep, that's certainly a clear-cut case of advertising malpractice.