Remember that great section of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1984) about the magically evil kid who terrified his family into doing whatever he wanted? I sure as hell do (it was directed by Joe Dante and it's sort of a miniature masterpiece), and it's pretty likely that most horror fans do as well. I can tell you one person who remembers that wacky technicolor nightmare: screenwriter Ray Wright, that's who. (He penned the American remake of Pulse (meh), but he also did the recent (and very strong) remake of The Crazies.) Wright's screenplay for Case 39 takes the bare essence of that great Joe Dante short, opens it with a very unconvincing misdirection, expands it to feature length, jettisons all the Chuck Jones-inspired visual lunacy, and finally decides on a pretty basic tale of "evil kid gone loco."
Fortunately Wright's script, as obvious and predictable as it often is, is salvaged by a clever director, a surprisingly strong cast, and a tone that successfully wavers between unexpectedly dark and (as the flick goes on) enjoyably pulpy. That Case 39 has languished on a shelf for the past three years is sort of a mystery; it's certainly no kind of new genre classic, but it's a heck of a lot more entertaining than many similar flicks. What Case 39 lacks in surprises and originality, it makes up for with a workmanlike approach to some familiar material, and a very welcome pacing that prevents the flick from ever becoming dull.
Renee Zellweger plays a child services officer who (unwisely) decides to bring an abused little girl home to stay. Since Case 39 is most definitely a horror / thriller, it's not much of a spoiler to reveal that little Lily (Jodelle Ferland) turns out to be all sorts of trouble. The sort of trouble that leaves numerous peripheral characters mysteriously dead, to be more specific. Our heroine slowly comes to realize what's going on, nobody believes her, a few more bodies pile up ... and you can probably fill in the rest of the blanks. But there's nothing wrong with a familiar old campfire tale when it's presented by the likes of Zellweger (quite good here), Ferland (wonderfully creepy), Ian McShane (concerned cop), Bradley Cooper (sensitive shrink), and (especially) Callum Keith Rennie, who plays Lily's natural father, and provides a fascinating presence in his every scene.
Director Christian Alvart (the also-underrated Pandorum) seems well aware that he's presenting a fun-but-familiar little chiller, but he approaches the material like it's brand new. The movie has a quietly creepy tone, even when it gets a little silly, and Alvart balances scenes of straight horror and sly dark comedy quite confidently. He also finds a way to deliver some visual scares and dream-like sequences that don't feel like narrative cheats or (even worse) empty filler material. Flicks that deal with supernatural terrors often use the dream sequences or "stuff only the main character sees" as a wheel-spinning device, but here that material actually feels natural. Little Jodelle Ferland, perhaps a bit too sickeningly sweet in the film's early scenes, has no problem turning on the dark-eyed malevolence once Case 39 starts getting scary. Young veteran of horror films like Silent Hill, The Messengers, and Seed, Ms. Ferland seems right at home in scary movies, and she's a damn good actress to boot. To her credit, Ms. Zellweger slips into a "plain Jane" role and has no problem creating a symapthetic -- if not all that multi-dimensional -- protagonist.
What starts out as slight and fairly obvious turns into a frequently colorful horror tale, and while nobody involved with Case 39 will ever rank it among their best works, the movie's a whole lot better than its lengthy phase of hibernation would lead you to believe. That the film doesn''t plain old suck is a pleasant surprise. That it's actually pretty darn entertaining is, to be honest, kind of shocking.