Watching Renee Zellweger wiggle around a horror film is a novelty that makes “Case 39” stand out from the pack. However, the rest of the feature is tremendously unsatisfying killer kid leftovers, assembled idiotically in a bewildering fashion that suggests director Christian Alvart wasn’t expecting anyone to notice. Well, it’s easy to spot every false move this mess of a movie makes as it stumbles towards a preposterous final act. It’s nice to see Zellweger flexing atrophied acting muscles (her first chiller since 1994’s circus sideshow, “The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), but “Case 39” is not the deafening scream queen comeback hoped for.
An overworked child services officer on the hunt for deadbeat parents, Emily Jenkins (Renee Zellweger) has been offered a strange case concerning a withdrawn girl named Lilith (Jodelle Ferland). Learning Lilith’s parents (Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O’Malley) are making plans to return their child “to Hell,” Emily promptly intervenes with the help of cop pal Mike (Ian McShane), eventually taking Lilith into her own custody at the child’s insistence. Upon her arrival, Lilith’s behavior changes, leaving Emily initially hopeful, but eventually disturbed when colleagues (including Bradley Cooper) and cases end up in dire straits. With angelic Lilith denying involvement, it’s up to Emily to figure out just why the girl’s biological parents wanted her dead in the first place.
Even without the stigma of reshoots (easily spotted in the picture) and multiple rescheduled release dates since 2008, “Case 39” would still come across as damaged goods. A messy, inconsequential horror film, screenwriter Ray Wright (2006’s “Pulse” remake and the recent “Crazies” remake as well -- so basically the guy’s a tracer) must’ve written something stupendous to attract Zellweger and the money men, as the finished product is hilariously inept, absent even a drop of everyday logic, and mistakes rowdy thespian reaction for suspense. Horrible butchery can and will occur when a screenplay takes a journey to production, so I’ll try to be as kind as I can be and hope that Wright’s work was mangled during filming and wasn’t a road map of moviegoing misery to begin with. However, I have my doubts.
The real blame for the sustained stupidity of “Case 39” belongs to director Christian Alvert, who last directed the baffling sci-fi snoozer, “Pandorum.” Alvert turns in an amateurish effort here, showing real difficulty with coherent staging and simple dramatic common sense. The story encourages hysteria as Emily searches for the clues that connect Lilith to the hell-raising battery of curses that appear to mangle anyone the concerned foster mom holds dear, but the suspense sequences are flaccid (a mid-movie hornet attack bumbles a surefire fear factor), hideously performed by a cast that wasn’t given the proper guidance to interact smoothly with special effects or show plausible concern. “Case 39” resembles the sort of film that didn’t actually have a real director on the set, with every scene stumbling for a focal point that never arrives. Zellweger gives the role a pleasant amount of anguish, but it’s a lost cause, and her growing disinterest in the film is palpable, especially when the Looney Tunes third-act payoff arrives.
Going into the true nature of Lilith’s menace puts me into touchy spoiler territory, but I will mention that as the epitome of potential evil, Ferland is a poor casting choice. Failing to radiate any threat, the young actress just dangles in Alvert’s void, running through her pre-programmed list of pouts and glares. It’s hardly chilling (or comprehensible), but her ineffectiveness keeps in line with the rest of this stinker, which can’t seem to make any sense of itself, to a point where the whole endeavor just gives up, believing the magic of the cheap scare and the might of the demonic threat will carry the rest of the weight.