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Ben Austwick [Film Festival 09.08.09] movie review horror thriller

Year: 2009
Directors: Christian Alvart
Writers: Ray Wright
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ben Austwick
Rating: 8 out of 10

The promise of a Renée Zellweger horror movie isn't one that will fill many horror fans with joy, and technically Case 39 is a pretty formulaic Hollywood take on the genre, albeit one that offers up more than the usual amount of jumps, laugh-out-loud moments and even the odd scary bit. But its controversial, some might even say irresponsible subject matter make it a curiosity seriously worth a look.

Renée Zellweger plays Emily Jenkins, an overworked social worker handed another child abuse case to put on her already overflowing pile. On investigating the case there is little to go on, despite uncooperative parents and the obviously damaged - not to mention cute - Lillith, the little girl in their charge. That night, acting on a hunch Emily rescues the child from imminent death in an apparently clear-cut case that sees the parents sent to a mental hospital. This rapid series of events merely sets the scene for the rest of the movie, establishing the pace for a very fast-moving thriller. In order to explore the film's controversial content I'm afraid I'm going to have to reveal more about the plot than I'd like, so beware - there are spoilers ahead.

Emily becomes Lillith's foster parent, on which she discovers she has been manipulated by a demon in the guise of a little girl. Lillith's parents were helplessly trying to rid the world of her evil by putting her through horrific abuse which they hoped would eventually kill her. The remainder of Case 39 follows and roots for Emily as she tries to do the same, thwarted on one side by the machinations of the demon-girl, and on the other by a social services department that just sees Lillith going through another cycle of abuse.

The controversy of the storyline is unlikely to be missed by British viewers. In a notorious child abuse case eight year-old Victoria Climbié was murdered by her guardians in Tottenham, North London in 2000. Victoria's great aunt believed the child was possessed by demons and put her through horrific torture and abuse before she finally died of hypothermia and malnutrition.

A film that takes the premise of a child suffering such abuse and turns it round so the child is responsible for what is happening is not only controversial, but perhaps even wrong-headed. As I sat open-mouthed watching the story unfold on-screen, my only thought was that there can't have been a case of abuse where the abuser alleged demonic possession in the United States, at least not in recent memory. Even so, a story that blames abuse on the child is edging into very difficult territory whether there are any real-life precedents for the story or not. What controversy Case 39 causes upon its release will have to be seen, but I'd be surprised if there isn't any, especially in the UK where a recent case of child abuse and murder has put the subject at the top of the news agenda again.

One of the reasons I like horror films is their approach to controversial subject matter. Almost universally concerned with violence and death, they regularly explore unpleasant but very real parts of life that are tiptoed around by other sections of the arts. For this reason I commend Case 39's subject matter, but it isn't handled as well as it could be. The story could easily have examined the subjectivity of Emily's belief that Lillith is a demon, in doing so casting a light on the dark thoughts that inform child abuse, but chooses instead a rather straight, supernatural tale that casts Lillith firmly as the baddie. Not really surprising from mainstream Hollywood, but disappointing all the same.

Story aside though, there's a lot that Case 39 gets right. It's not often you can praise child actors but Jodelle Ferland is superb as Lillith, cute as a button one minute and comically menacing the next, providing a lot of the film's jumps and laughs. As mentioned before it rips along at a cracking pace, and despite its subject matter is a lot of fun, perhaps worryingly so. The makers of Case 39 seem to have blundered into its controversial subject matter without thinking, just using it as a convenient prop for a traditional if effective horror outing, blind to the actual message they were putting across. This in itself is quite a spectacle, and that there's a decent mainstream horror film built around it makes it a must-see.

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agentorange (12 years ago) Reply

Is this finally seeing some play because of the buzz around Pandorum? Why else would the studio withhold the film for so long if it was decent? Synergy baby!


Ben Austwick (12 years ago) Reply

I have a sneaky feeling they might be scared of its content, but that's just a hunch


Rick Archer (12 years ago) Reply

Ahhh yes I did wonder why this one had been held back for a number of years as I came out of the movie thinking "this would surely play well to a mainstream audience?". The Victoria Climbie case is of course notorious but I had forgotten about the detail behind it. Also the more recent "Baby P" child abuse case is still raw in the memory of the UK and this may also be a factor.

I'll be honest and say that I did think right at the start that the kid was the evil one not the parents but that arose largely out of the fact that the kids' name was Lilith (Y'know the old Apocryphal Jewish Demon Queen thing).

I dont dislike Renee Zellwegger - and actually liked her a lot in the Bridget Jones movies - just dont find her great. She was totlly acted off the screen by the Jodelle Ferland as Lilith though - she was consistently superb but I particularly like the scene where she freaked out RZ's Psychologist boyfriend (Bradley Cooper?) with her calm assesment of him as "facile" and "smug" - as I agreed with her! :D A very bright future for that kid if she keeps this kind of performance up in future roles.

Overall very enjoyable and one I'd happily see again on release.


Ben Austwick (12 years ago) Reply

Ooh I didn't know the etymology of Lillith, thanks!

Yeah Zelweger is pretty average really, though I do like a couple of films she's been in (Jerry Maguire, *cough* Bridget Jones *cough*). Parts that could have been played by anyone really - maybe she does average, everyday woman well?


Anonymous (12 years ago) Reply

I love Renee Zellweger and find her to be a very natural and engaging actress! I have loved almost all of her movies. I cannot wait to see her in a good horror film!


Jesus Olmo (11 years ago) Reply

Sexual abuse sub-theme in 'The Exorcist':

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