Case 39, like many horror movies, relies heavily on the devices and themes of its genre. While some of these are successfully employed, the film’s more prominent feature is the way the normally-frightening, if predictable, conventions it relies on fall flat. The elements in another movie might be dismissed as manipulative — sudden, jarring cuts to horrific images, religious themes and evil children, to name a few — fail to manipulate.
The film follows Emily Jenkins (Renée Zellweger), an overworked social worker who temporarily adopts one of her cases — young Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland) — after discovering that her parents plan to send her to hell (an endeavour which they approach, quite pragmatically, by digging a hole in their basement, seemingly undisturbed by the metaphysical nature of hell and the fact that their house is at the top of a hill). At first, the girl is shy and loving, but people begin to die and signs point to Lilith’s involvement. We eventually get the impression that we are supposed to become afraid of her.
The problem is that she is not very scary. While evidence suggests that she was somehow involved in the murders, it is always indirectly. A girl who arranges or precipitates a murder may be just as scary to the rational mind as one who commits a murder, but fear is not governed by reason (which partly explains the plot of Case 39). Furthermore, whenever Lilith is on screen, she’s well-behaved and cute. While the “evil children” of other films portray a veneer of innocence concealing an evil soul, Lilith’s childish mannerisms are too convincing to be affected — it’s evil Lilith who appears to be acting. Even when she shocks her guardians with detailed knowledge of their private lives, she seems more a clever, manipulative child than a supernatural being with psychic powers.
Lilith’s apparent innocence makes Zellweger’s character more difficult to empathize with. In many horror movies, the protagonist’s struggle with the supernatural is interpreted as mental infirmity. However, the viewer must first be fairly confident in the main character’s mental faculty for this to be effective. This is never the case with Emily Jenkins. She spends the first 30 minutes of the movie smiling incessantly, and in the most inappropriate circumstances, and the rest consulting mental patients. When Lilith comes under suspicion, Jenkins quickly turns against her traumatized ward and doesn’t delay visiting the Sullivans, the parents who tried to bake Lilith in their 1950s oven, in their asylum. She is so easily convinced that she is babysitting evil incarnate that it’s hard not too agree with her friends who dismiss her plight and tell her to get help.
In Case 39, even the most basic and — usually — frustratingly-effective horror device under-performs. Long periods of silence followed by sudden cuts and startling sound are an easy recipe for fright, but they often trigger resentment the same way un-taxable offshore holdings do. That is, they exploit a well-known weakness. This technique was used so frequently in Case 39 that I was able to predict the majority of its occurrences, which severely limited its effect.
When combined with its formulaic plot and farcical dialogue, these deficiencies render Case 39 one of those unfortunate films that become tangled and bloody in the barbed-wire fence that divides cult and mainstream, where it hangs, screaming at the other films that it could have been something. If nothing else, Case 39 is proof that even tired genre conventions require some skill to be executed properly. It seems I owe Mr. Tarantino an apology.