Blu-Ray Review: ‘Case 39’ Definitely Should Have Stayed Closed

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CHICAGO – Some films invite instant parodies before they’re even released. Jodie Foster’s ill-advised Mel Gibson vehicle, “The Beaver,” is one of them. Christian Alvart’s long-buried Renée Zellweger vehicle “Case 39” is another. The film’s tagline reads, “Some cases should never be reopened,” which inspires the obvious (and defensible) retort, “Some films should never be released.”

This turkey sat on the shelf for years before being trotted out after its co-star, Bradley Cooper, scored a box office success with “The Hangover.” I’m sure fans of that frat house favorite can’t wait to see Cooper writhing in agony as phony animated hornets crawl out of his every orifice. That’s one of endless ridiculous moments in “Case 39,” a thoroughly uninspired cut-and-paste job that’s like “The Omen” meets “The Ring” meets “The Bad Seed” meets “The Good Son” meets “The Shining” meets “Orphan” meets Enough Already! Blu-Ray Rating: 1.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 1.5/5.0

Zellweger hasn’t done this much wailing and trembling since her long-forgotten, pre-“Maguire” effort, “The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre” back in 1994. She does what she can with the role of Emily, a hard-working social worker who remains unflappable in the face of teeth-knashing loons like the Sullivans, a blatantly homicidal couple holding their little daughter Lillith hostage. After rescuing her from their clutches, Emily decides to commit to something other than her work for the first time in her adult life. She adopts Lillith, who is overjoyed to have a parent that isn’t hellbent on baking her in an oven. Yet since this adoption takes place a mere half hour into Alvart’s horror flick, the viewer spends the rest of the time waiting for the other shoe to drop. And since Lillith is played by Jodelle Ferland, the fitfully spooky tyke whose wide eyes have haunted everything from “Silent Hill” to “Tideland,” it’s clear that Emily won’t be reaping the joys of motherhood anytime soon.

Renée Zellweger and Bradley Cooper star in Christian Alvart’s Case 39.
Renée Zellweger and Bradley Cooper star in Christian Alvart’s Case 39.
Photo credit: Paramount Home Entertainment

In the era of all-too-easy special effects, the “Descent Into Madness Thriller” has become increasingly tiresome, despite some strong examples of the sub-genre (most recently “Black Swan”). “Case 39” excuses its lazy lack of coherence by blaming it all on dreams or supernatural events or demonic possession. The rug is ripped out from under the audience so many times that they’re never able to regain their balance, thus causing the film’s endless mechanisms of misdirection to become thoroughly tedious. Even worse are the film’s tasteless justifications for its borderline offensive sequences of extreme child abuse, epitomized by the line, “It’s not child-killing if it’s not a child!” Several sequences are all-too-reminiscent of stories ripped from the headlines, particularly the devastating accounts of deranged mothers who’ve murdered their children by driving their car into the water. To see such tragic crimes exploited by such a simple-minded thriller is appalling.
The overqualified cast is the film’s sole bright spot. Zellweger has a nice way of navigating her way through a child’s bedroom as if it were a land mine, while Bradley Cooper and Ian McShane earn points for maintaining a straight face throughout it all. As for Ferland, she is utterly unconvincing in scenes that require her to be a doe-eyed innocent. But once her smart-mouthed deviousness is allowed to rise to the service, Ferland exudes a formidable presence that’s worthy of a far more deserving showcase.  

Case 39 was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Jan. 4, 2010.
Case 39 was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Jan. 4, 2010.
Photo credit: Paramount Home Entertainment

“Case 39” is presented in grainy 1080p High Definition (with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English, Spanish, French, Brazilian Portuguese and Descriptive Video Service audio tracks. None of the disc’s four brief featurettes divulge details about the precise reason why the film’s theatrical release had been delayed for three years. Instead, we’re treated to pat soundbites from the cast and crew. Ferland is delightfully perplexed about why she keeps being brought in for “scary things.” There’s a closer look at the burn makeup used on Lillith’s mother, played by Kerry O’Malley, who seems unsure about what the imagined burns are meant to represent. Are they spawned by her character’s fear of hellfire, or her guilt over throwing her demon seed in the oven? My guess is they’re spawned by Alvart’s love of “Nightmare on Elm Street.” Another diverting featurette centers on the staged burning of a house where the fire can be turned on and off like a faucet.
Yet the most worthwhile extra on this disc is the full half hour of deleted scenes that include a vastly superior and appropriate alternate ending. There’s also a bizarre alternate death scene for a key character in which he’s pursued by a group of faceless thugs. A couple early moments build further sympathy not only for Lillith but her unlucky peer, Diego. Other sequences better establish the master-slave relationship that forms between child and mother, as Lillith orders Emily for “Syrup!” To what extent is Lillith a child anyway? Does Little Miss Satan really care about what goes on her pancakes? Rounding out the scrapped sequences are an implied love triangle at Emily’s work and a laughable horror gag involving a photocopier that shamelessly rips off the manuscript scene from “The Shining.” All clichés and no creativity makes “Case 39” a dull boy indeed.

‘Case 39’ is released by Paramount Home Entertainment and stars Renée Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland, Ian McShane, Bradley Cooper, Callum Keith Rennie, Kerry O’Malley and Adrian Lester. It was written by Ray Wright and directed by Christian Alvart. It was released on Jan. 4, 2011. It is rated R. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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