The bastard offspring of “The Bad Seed,” “The Omen” and “Orphan,” homicidal-tyke thriller “Case 39” proves that this horror subgenre’s gene pool is definitely starting to thin out. Starring Renee Zellweger as an overzealous social worker who invites a demonic 10-year-old cutie pie into her own home, this ludicrous outing from helmer Christian Alvart (“Pandorum”) and scribe Ray Wright (“The Crazies”) takes its psycho-satanic babble much too seriously, and should elicit more laughs than frights during its long-delayed U.S. theatrical run. Already released in several foreign territories, Paramount’s problem child will find adequate foster care on cable and homevid.
Shot in 2006 and withheld from domestic release for more than two years, pic hit various overseas markets in 2009 and recently went straight to DVD in France, Italy and Japan. (Pic grossed more than $3 million in Mexico and Spain, and Paramount will likely target Hispanic auds Stateside, where it will be released under the Paramount Vantage label.) While such delays aren’t entirely uncommon for certain studio-backed B-titles, such an extended waiting period doesn’t augur well, and it takes only a few reels to see what the problem is.
When child-services specialist Emily (Zellweger) investigates her latest subject, the pale-faced, aptly named Lilith (Jodelle Ferland), she’s immediately drawn to the child’s ghostly presence and sense of sheltered innocence. On a home visit to meet the girl’s parents (Callum Keith Rennie, Kerry O’Malley), Emily believes she’s stumbled upon a clear-cut case of child abuse, and her suspicions are confirmed a few nights later when she barges into the house and finds them trying to stuff poor little Lilith into the oven.
With the help of a child psychologist (Bradley Cooper, pre-“The Hangover”) and a local cop (Ian McShane, post-“Deadwood”), Emily decides to take charge of Lilith herself. While such actions are already professionally dubious, they soon prove to be more dangerous than she imagined: Not only is Lilith getting bad grades in school, but it turns out she likes to call people on the telephone and push them to commit gruesome acts of murder or suicide. She also has something to do with Satan, though it’s never really clear what that is.
While pic has at least one decent idea in transforming a tale of battered children into that of battered parents, the originality buck stops there. Between Alvart’s pedestrian handling of the five or six requisite death scenes and Michl Britsch’s ineffective score, the suspense mostly rides on whether Lilith will actually seem evil enough when she says things like, “I’ll tell you what scares me if you tell me what scares you.”
Well, nobody’s getting scared anytime soon, despite tyro horror star Ferland’s (“Silent Hill,” “Seed”) occasionally convincing turn in a role that often requires her to just stare for a long time at the other cast members. Faring slightly worse is Zellweger as a character who claims she’s “just not mom material” but then inexplicably lobbies to take custody of Lilith, only to try and give her back when she doesn’t turn out to be the kind of kid she hoped for.
Pic was filmed on location in Vancouver, and its mood is somewhat enhanced by the eerie, Gothic-style homes and interiors of production designer John Willet (“Final Destination”). In this “Case,” the devil is in the details but nowhere else.