A barely coherent pre-title sequence ensures that the story is hard to engage with from the very beginning. It feels like we're watching some hastily assembled outtakes randomly thrown together. Things do not improve once the plot unfolds, detailing the intervention of social worker Emily (Zellwegger) into the turbulent domestic situation of Lilith, a 10-year-old who seemingly fears for her life. Director Christian 'Uwe Boll in disguise' Alvart takes great pains to depict her parents as creepy and full of maniacal glares, but once they're dispatched to prison early on in proceedings it comes as no surprise that the real evil is Lilith.
Unwittingly, Emily takes a demonic child into her own home and faces a fight for survival. Somewhat incongruously, Lilith's guardians are visited by Emily once the true threat becomes clear - and are now shown as normal-acting innocent victims while behind bars. Such an incredulous shift highlights the complete absence of any credible characters in the film, with the actors portraying plot functions instead.
Lovejoy (aka Ian McShane) pops up as Emily's boss and somehow manages to keep a straight face while spouting a procession of execrably hammy dialogue. In addition, The Hangover's Bradley Cooper makes zero impact as the heroine's token love interest, although he is more impressive than the CGI bees (seemingly rendered on a Commodore 64) that he encounters in an overlong scene that shamelessly knocks off Candyman.
Even if Zellweger had pulled off a compelling lead performance it wouldn't have been enough to salvage this mess. But ultimately her unconvincing turn plunges it further into the dregs. Her attempts to convey fear lead to some bizarre facial expressions, best described as someone desperately trying not to sneeze while having a slab of stinky Stilton cheese dangled under their nose. She also lacks any conviction and sincerity in her guise as a social worker, coming across as so lightweight that a faint breeze would blow her out of the frame.
The attempts to generate tension and chills are utterly laughable. Every time anyone bends over to peer out of a window, something or someone will suddenly jolt out in front of them accompanied by a loud screech on the soundtrack. The absolute nadir of these painfully orchestrated 'jolts' arrives when Emily takes a peek around Lilith's house, picks up an alarm clock - then recoils in horror when it starts ringing! Presumably there's a deleted scene knocking around somewhere where she tries to warm some food up in a microwave and faints when it makes a beeping sound.
Christian Alvert's reliance on abstract camera angles, particularly a peculiar fetish for unnecessary overhead shots, is another reason why Case 39 borders on being unwatchable. Only the procession of unintentional laughs and an unflinchingly confident turn by youngster Jodelle Ferland as Lilith emerge as reasons not to bury your head in a bucket of popcorn and rue the regrettable moment a certain vault was unlocked.
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