That's not to say that Case 39 is a misunderstood gem or anything. It's kind of a mess, really, but it's a better mess than I expected. Written by Ray Wright, who had a hand in the recent Crazies remake, Case 39 has an intriguing first half and a silly but still highly watchable second half. When social worker Emily Jenkins (Renee Zellweger) is assigned a case involving a ten-year-old named Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland, of Silent Hill) whose parents are clearly a pair of nuts, Emily makes it her mission to protect Lilith and get her out of that home. At first, bureaucracy and the Sullivan's wily ways keep Lilith out of Emily's reach but when the Sullivans try to actually roast Lilith in an oven (!), Emily is there to put a stop to it.
Rather than put Lilith in a state-run home until a foster family can adopt her, Emily puts on her mommy shoes to take her in as her temporary caretaker. That's a nice gesture but a big mistake, as it turns out, because Lilith is some kind of demon or something. Whatever Lilith really is, Emily lives to regret being conned by this hell spawn's innocent act. Before long, Emily is secretly paying visits to Lilith's parents in the psycho ward just to get the full story on what she's dealing with. Can Emily's psychologist friend (Bradley Cooper) or her cop buddy (Ian McShane) be any help? The odds don't look favorable.
Evil kid movies live or die on the strength of the performance of the kid and happily for Case 39, Ferland plays Lilith just right. Unfortunately, a lot of people will likely see Ferland as playing a knock-off of Isabelle Fuhrman's performance in last year's instant cult favorite Orphan without knowing that Case 39 actually predated Orphan. Ferland doesn't have as complicated a character to play as Fuhrman did but she does a great job anyhow.
The most curious aspect of Case 39 is the lack of explanation - supernatural, scientific, or otherwise - regarding Lilith's origins. Most monster or demon movies make a point to name their creature and give them a cooked-up mythology of some kind. Because that mythology is how the film's characters know how to stop it - whether it's going to be a wooden stake, a silver bullet, an exorcism, or whatever. Is Lilith deep down a good girl who's been possessed by a demon? That'd be an expected way to go. That way, Emily could purge the demon from Lilith's body and live happily ever after with the real Emily. Is Lilith some kind of alien, maybe? A shape-shifter? We don't know. We never know. There's not even any educated guesses thrown around. More than anything else, I think this is going to keep audiences from enjoying Case 39. Too much ambiguity, too many unanswered questions.
From a dramatic standpoint, the lack of revelations about Lilith make it hard for Case 39 to build to a rousing third-act climax. There's no exorcism to perform, no incantation to say, no mystical dagger to use. Once Emily knows that Lilith is truly evil, it's just a matter of taking her out but yet the proper manner of accomplishing that is never known. Emily is forced to go improv with her child-killing skills and try whatever seems deadly enough until something sticks and Lilith doesn't get back up again.
Having expected the worst from Case 39 and finding it to be...not that bad, I don't know what kept this one out of theaters for two years - maybe the studio just thought it sucked that hard. But that hasn't stopped other movies from making their release dates so Case 39 should've been given a break, too. Alvart has the skills to make a good horror movie and he makes the most out of Case 39. I liked that this was, at heart, a horror movie about how parents can feel held hostage by their children. There's been plenty of killer kid movies over the years but they usually take the approach that the people around the parents keep figuring out what's up with the kid - and getting killed for it - while the parents remain oblivious until the last act. Here, it's the parent that is clued in but everyone else thinks they're crazy for suggesting that their kid is evil.
I wonder if this is why the studio was so reluctant to get behind Case 39 - that they felt it was too hard to sell a movie about an adoptive mother who wants to kill her kid. All the ads for the movie make it look as though Lilith is being pursued by demons and that Emily is trying to protect her, not that Lilith is evil herself. In fact, I think there was material shot just for the trailer to give the impression that Emily and Lilith are under attack - we see them cowering in a corner together, hiding under a bed - because I'm telling you that no scenes like that are in the film itself. There's also a glimpse of a demon (check out the 1:42 mark) and a scene of Lilith being sucked into her bed that aren't in the final film. Check it out:
This trailer is completely deceptive and I'm not sure why the studio went that route. One of the strongest aspects of the movie is Ferland's performance - why keep it a secret that she's the villain of the film? Orphan did so well for Warner Bros. last year on the strength of its ad campaign that featured the evil Esther front and center. Then again, that same campaign also drew a lot of heat from adoption agencies who claimed the movie put adoption in a bad light.
I bet Paramount feared that another film about another evil adoptive child would've gotten the same kind of flak and chose to sell Case 39 as an entirely different movie than what they had. It's too bad. Case 39 still might not have been a hit but it should've been sold for what it really is. As is, what we have is a cinematic case of false identity.