CASE 39 takes a potent subtext about the terrors of unprepared parenthood and wastes it in a rote creepy kid flick that displays both iffy internal logic and a trifling execution. Renee Zellweger brings her best to this mess, but alas her efforts, when played out in the vacuum provided her, become at best a noble effort to live up to her contractual obligations.
Her character, Emily Jenkins, should know all thats worth knowing about how to cope with the realities of child-rearing, even when it involves a troubled child such as 10-year-old Lilith (Jodelle Ferland). As a social worker in child protective services, Emily pulled Lilith from the oven in which her parents were trying to cremate her. Bending the rules in order to get custody of the child that clings fiercely to her for reassurance and protection, Emily soon learns that Lilith is not what she seems, and that her parents may not have been quite as crazy as everyone assumes. When she confiders her concerns to them, the people around her, including her veteran cop pal (Ian McShane) and her compassionate supervisor (Adrian Lester) tell her that she needs psychological help. Leaving Emily to cope alone with a demon child.
Lilith is suitably creepy, one moment all sweetness and light, the next, thanks to a mature approach by Ferland, genuinely threatening when eliciting from Emilys sort-of boyfriend and child therapist (Bradley Cooper) that he is terrified of hornets during their therapy session. Its much more effective that the swarm of hornets that later attacks him from within, crawling from eyes, ears, nose and throat. The subdued atmosphere that pervades that and all the other action drains every bit of tension from the proceedings. The usual tropes of terror, underscored by an all-too familiar set of music cues, have nothing to substantiate them. The scariest moment is the one when Lilith, watching inappropriate videos and snacking between meals, calmly and authoritatively tells Emily that she is there to do exactly what she, Lilith, says. The oddest one is a product placement moment wherein the provider chooses to have its brand associated with calls from, literally, Hell.
The parallels conjured here of what happens when a parent faces the day-to-day chores of tending to a child are clear. Lilith demands attention, affection, and getting her way on everything. When it comes to a reality check, there is little that comes close to discovering that the ordered life one imagined would continue after a child enters the picture wont. The trapped feeling, the sure and certain knowledge that making a mistake will cost dearly and possibly legally here recast in terms of an actual demon child that has cut off Emily from all her friends by killing them, and has taken over how Emily will live her life from now on. Would that it were not all lost in a fog of thuddingly bland storytelling and characters who leap from skeptics to demon hunters with the flimsiest of evidence.