Thursday, October 06, 2011

No Good Deed...

The most disappointing thing about Case 39 (2009, directed by Christian Alvart) isn't that it's ridiculous. That's a given in any movie about evil children and if you're in for horror movies about evil children, you had better be willing to ride that roller coaster off the rails. No, that's not it. The most disappointing thing about it is how unimaginative its monster turns out to be. I don't mean in the literal sense of its conception, though that's kind of disappointing, too. I mean in terms of its visual design. This is kind of a crisis in horror movies right now, because too many effects houses are concepting the same damned monsters. I'm giving away the plot, but screw it: there's a demon in Case 39, and it's a demon that looks EXACTLY like the creepy old woman that goes berserk at the beginning of Legion and the vampires in I Am Legend and any number of other human-ish monsters of recent vintage. From my perspective, horror filmmakers tasked with creating monsters have the best fucking job in the world and it's unconscionable to me that most of them don't give it their all and rely, instead, on boring designs already out in the world. It's lazy. Say what you like about Guillermo Del Toro or Peter Jackson, they at least take the job of creating monsters seriously.

Anyway, as I say, Case 39 is ridiculous. It gives us Lilith Sullivan, an evil child who insinuates herself into the life of one Emily Jenkins, the social worker who "saves" her from being burned alive in an oven by her parents, then takes her into her own home as a foster parent. It turns out, the girl's parents had just cause for their actions, and pretty soon, our social worker heroine learns all too well what those causes are, but not before a sizable number of her friends are dead through ghastly and mysterious circumstances. When she eventually questions the girl's parents about her nature, she is told that Lilith is a demon, and that she's only vulnerable when she sleeps. Emily then contrives to burn her own house down with Lilith inside, and when that doesn't work, she resorts to even more desperate measures.

Okay, I need to pause here after synopsizing the film to note that I hate, hate, hate it when horror movies ignore their own rules. The movie goes to great lengths to convince the audience that Lilith is only vulnerable when she's sleeping. Her parents tell Emily that they waited for weeks before they had their opportunity. And then, in the end, it doesn't friggin matter. Lilith is fully conscious for the final confrontation at the end of the film and the whole sleep business is completely forgotten. I'm also surprised that the authorities let Emily walk away from the scene of her housefire, but she's going to be answering some questions about arson shortly afterwards, methinks. The movie doesn't care about any of these small niggling details. The word I would use for the plotting on display in this film's screenplay is "feckless," which would be charming if the film had any sense of its own absurdity (see, for instance, Orphan). Unfortunately, it takes it all too soberly.

This is a glum, movie, too, with its wintery exterior shots and its flourescent-lit interiors. Even spaces that should be warm have a coldness to them. The movie is literal minded to a fault about staging its set pieces, and when the scene arrives when Lilith's mother suddenly finds herself in an oven rather than her cell at the asylum, the movie has parted all company with any kind of insinuation or creeping menace. This, after we already had a particularly ghastly scene of Bradley Cooper's character being assailed by hornets, though I admit to enjoying these scenes because I like watching Bradley Cooper suffer on screen. He has that kind of face. Renee Zellweger is a surprisingly big name star for the lead in this film and she's okay in the role. I don't think the actress had much invested in the part because she plays it at two levels: exhausted and desperate, two emotions she can conjure in her sleep. Ian McShane really oughta be playing a bad guy rather than mentor, but that's just me.

Jodelle Ferland, for her part, has creepy kid down pat, but I wonder if her performance isn't down to how she's filmed rather than any innate quality of performance. The way creepy kids are filmed in most films reminds me of Kathleen Byron's assertion that half of her performance in The Archers' Black Narcissus was in the lighting and make-up. The trouble with Jodelle Ferland is that there's a smugness even in her "sweet" phase, and the movie always, always contrives to make her appear sinister. There's no ambiguity involved, and some ambiguity would go a long way toward making this film more interesting than it is. As it is, the fact that the audience knows how bad the kid is almost from the get-go makes the second half of the movie into an exercise in make-work.

In any event, Case 39 was one of those orphan productions that sits on the shelf for a while after going into the can. It was completed two years before it made it to theaters. This isn't always a barometer of how good or bad a movie is, but it's usually an ominous indication.

Current tally: 6 films

First time viewings: 6

Around the web:

Friend of the blog J. Luis Rivera runs down another 15 Overlooked Horror Movies over on his W-Cinema blog. Some real obscurities on this one, so don't miss it.

Another friend of the blog, Bob Turnbull, has started his own Halloween horror movie marathon at The Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind.

Mr. Gable continues to endure his own private hell with Fraternity Massacre at Hell Island.

The Vicar of VHS moves on to Tales that Witness Madness over at Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movies.

Eric over at Expelled Gray Matter takes on Frontieres, Bowery at Midnight, and Snowbeast.

Bryce over at Things That Don't Suck has moved on to Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, which your humble bloginatrix will be giving a pass. But check out the review in any case.

Also, if you're not following the challenge on Facebook, you're missing out on a lively community. Stop in and say hi.


J Luis Rivera said...

I watched it on theaters, around two years before it arrived to the U.S. It seemed to me that the international markets got it earlier for some odd reason.

I remember "Case 39" being slightly better than average, marred by some poor CGI effects, a serious case of predictability and that lack of ambiguity you point out.

I wonder if general audiences are actually able of enjoying more this kind of films, being less familiar with the genre's clichés than us, horror fans.

I had no idea Bradley Cooper was in it, I guess that says a lot about my apreciation for the man (though I liked him in "Limitless", maybe that's because it's the perfect role for his face. Like Keanu and Neo).

PS. thanks for the link!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I kind of like Bradley Cooper in horror movies. In this film and in The Midnight Meat Train, both, actually. I think I just like to watch him suffer. I'm sure he's a very nice man, but he has one of those faces.

Aubyn said...

While I'm not a horror buff by nature or trade, I'm in complete agreement with you about the lack of imagination in today's CGI monsters. Although I have to say that a horror film that names their evil child "Lilith" has pretty much already decided to stomp out any traces of imagination.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rachel,

No kidding. I thought about commenting on the fact that the character name telegraphs what she is, but I decided that it was obvious enough that I didn't even need to say anything about it.

By the way, I know that it's not the focus of your blog, but I hope you'll post something Halloween-y later this month. Something about the Val Lewton films, maybe, or the Halloween scenes in Meet Me In St. Louis? You'll pardon me if I evangelize the holiday, but it's in my nature.

insanislupus said...

Glad to see Chris has a sadistic side. Poor Bradly.

I wanted to really like this film. Zelwhatshername's return to horror looked promising, surrounded by (as J Luis pointed out) the fact it hit international markets first, and it seemed like it could be something special. Not a bad film, bot not overly good. I had a dream where Rick Baker led a rebellion against the big studios and SFX went back to the old days. It may have been prophecy. Then Mighty Joe Young showed up...

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I do indeed have a sadistic side, oh, crazed wolf. You mean the leather corset and the signal whip weren't a tip-off?

insanislupus said...

Fine line between sadomasochistic and sadistic. When chained to the wall, do you twist the nipple 180 degrees or 360? Please don't answer that.