Case 39 is a film with tons of squandered potential that earns the rare distinction of Film Most Deserving of a Remake Due to Lack of Execution. Unlike others in the past like Captivity it does not, however, come even close to being good for a number of reasons. It should also be noted that this film was in the can for two years and likely to remain undistributed- not that something like that always matters (Blue Sky) but it should be taken into consideration.
To borrow a journalism term this film buries the lead, which is to say that it does not tell the most compelling story it has to offer. It decides to tell the tale of a well-meaning social worker who thinks she is doing this child a favor and saving her from abuse. As time goes by it turns out the girl is demonic. The more compelling tale would be to follow this girl’s life with her “parents” then the scene in which she is taken away has an added layer of emotion and becomes even more poignant, frightening and impactful. However, you cannot punish a film for what it should’ve done. What it did do wasn’t that great either.
It gets off on the wrong foot right away by trying to introduce too many things in the early going. There is Emily (Renée Zellweger) and her work, then we see a little about her personal life and meet Doug (Bradley Cooper); we see her working one of her other cases which comes into the mix later, Diego (Alexander Conti) and there are a few meetings with Lilith’s (Jodelle Ferland, who is rather good in this part) family when there could be fewer. Edward’s, Lilith’s father, tight-lipped attitude prompts Emily to contact Detective Barron (Ian McShane) to try and look into their history. All this before Lilith is taken out of their custody, which would not be an issue if the film had measured its pace.
Instead once Emily has custody of Lilith she starts to jump to the supernatural conclusion far too soon and the only reason that would happen is because there is a concern about running time. While strange things had occurred things hadn’t gotten to a supernatural state just yet. Either the build had to be more consistent while bringing these people in or there needs to be a slower escalation of the Emily-Lilith conflict.
So it all becomes a question of reaction, or rather overreaction. A similar thing happens when Doug, a psychologist, has a session with Lilith. It is a disconcerting and somewhat cloying standard horror scene. As an audience, we can read between the lines and see she’s messing with him but Doug walks out of the encounter saying he feels “shaken” but he looks like he saw her head spin around the reaction is far too big for the scene we just witnessed. The only function it serves is to fuel Emily’s fears.
Then Emily’s approach to the final confrontation is all wrong. She is told that Lilith can only be killed in her sleep, which she hardly does at all. What that factoid is based on is beyond me. Her first approach is very hands-off and then although we get some very good intercut flashbacks what finally does it ends up being too easy a solution especially after having seen examples of her strength not moments before.
The concept this film tries to prey upon is that you are never safe from this demon if you are on her radar as she doesn’t actually kill you but rather makes circumstances more conducive to your death. It doesn’t quite succeed in that regard either. There is the aftermath of a gruesome scene which isn’t shot to its potential. The most effective onscreen kill is likely the hornets, however, their CG-ness is rather apparent throughout.
Inconsistency abounds in this film from pace to logic to effectiveness and even the performances aren’t immune, most of the times they are victimized by the script though. Case 39 has promise in many areas but never comes close to realizing it in anyway shape or form and ends up being a wasteful disappointment.