Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Roughly 39 Problems

To get into the spirit of Halloween, I had planned to write at least one review of a horror film or a collection of good scary stories, slated for the end of October. However, a recent, random film screening has moved this plan up a couple of weeks earlier than anticipated. Reviews of horror, especially film versions, are often produced by niche websites and publications that strive for comedic or far too serious angles, but with the occasional positive. Two of my fellow bloggers are must-reads for excellent horror film reviews: Bob Turnbull has a wealth of essays at Eternal Sunshine Of the Logical Mind, many of them focusing on rare or under-the-radar movies from Japan and the world abroad. Vincent Sassana's HTML Slop contains reviews of sometimes terrible movies, but his writing is finely balanced between the critical and the hilarious. I recently saw Christian Alvart's Case 39, a seemingly forgettable horror film that was released in the United States last year to very little attention (my first awareness of its existence came when it popped up on my girlfriend's Netflix queue, and we watched it with a shrug, wanting to see a random scary movie). I lack the skill of writing funny takes on bad films, but after a lot of thought, Case 39 is actually a good example of questionable horror craft and misguided films in general. I never write about a piece of media unless there are at least some positives, but even a throwaway film does have the potential to educate.

Renee Zellweger plays Emily, a social worker who begins to investigate a troubled young girl and her eccentric parents. Lily is bright and caring, but her grades are slipping drastically. Emily's first visit is obviously unexpected and unwelcome, and she takes an immediate, sympathetic liking to the girl, telling Lily to call her if she needs anything. A distressed late-night call leads Emily and police detective Mike Barron (Ian McShane) to the house, where they save the girl from being killed by her parents. Afterward, a young boy in Lily's support group brutally murders his own parents, and calls are traced from Emily's house, leading some to believe that the two young children communicated right before the killing. Emily investigates Lily's old house and finds signs of her parents attempting to barricade themselves from the girl. While evaluating Lily, psychiatrist Douglas Ames (Bradley Cooper) is questioned by the girl and is made to reveal his worst fears. Once all of this comes together, and after seeking out the former parents for questioning, it becomes apparent that Lily is a mind-controlling demon, and is seemingly impervious to control or elimination. Emily must fight through everyone else's disbelief to vanquish the "little girl."

It has often been said that some of the best horror films are psychological, but there's nothing wrong with a combination of the psychological and the supernatural. However, re-read the above plot synopsis: the genre rarely provides ground for originality, since every possible scary movie element has been done, done again, told from different angles, and so forth. However, Case 39 commits some pretty basic errors, ones that become all the more unnerving when the rare decent moment comes up. First of all, I've often wondered why horror films with famous cast members tend to do poorly. Perhaps higher production costs, given the cost of the actors associated, make horror movies too glossy and sacrifice emphasis on direction and writing in favor of seeing well-known faces in precarious, CGI-infused situations. In my opinion, scary movies are better when seemingly done on the fly, with relatively unknown actors seeming more like characters instead of having the audience make mental notes of "Hey, _____ is about to get killed!" I've never really considered Renee Zellweger a favorite actress, but I've never really disliked her. Her performance is fine, but given the limitations and obvious developments of the story, any actress could have been cast and able to frown and look stressed out. Ian McShane (Deadwood) is physically cast as a stock type, a grizzled yet caring detective. Bradley Cooper's role is actually important for unexpected reasons (more on that later). Child actress Jodelle Ferland actually works quite well as the demon child. She doesn't overact and makes a convincing portrayal as a seemingly bright, innocent girl. Later in the film, CGI takes over, but she manages to be unnerving and unsettling when letting the hints of her true character come out. She's soft spoken, direct, and in one of the film's best scenes, adds a lot of creepy atmosphere to the simple, childhood act of spinning around in a wheeled office chair.

In such a film, any actor is reliant upon the screenwriter and director. Screenwriter Ray Wright seems to have not expended any energy into the story, following a "paint by numbers" formula that manages to foreshadow every so-called twist and turn. For such a weak film, he at least attempts to build up the climaxes instead of revealing the demonic forces early and often; then again, even someone like me, a film lover who is behind on noted horror movies, gets used to the cliches and the supposedly scary moments. However, there are three key moments in the film that should make an audience wonder how much better the final product could have been. This isn't a horror-comedy, but at one point, Emily tells her boss that Lily's mother is an emotional slave to her husband; he turns and asks if she had actually interviewed his parents. Toward the end of the film, Emily confronts Mike outside of his church and asks why he believes in religious forces and not the ones outside. Religion and horror have been explored many times in film, but this loaded question could have possibly provided more intriguing angles. And finally, when Lily asks Douglas about his fears, she tells him that she doesn't like him and finds him smug. I sincerely hope that this line was added after the casting was done, because it works as unintentional comedy: she seems to be saying that to Bradley Cooper, not his character. Director Christian Alvart doesn't provide any directorial touches other than the ones seemingly mandated by horror conventions. Of the technical aspects, the best work is done by cinematographer Hagen Bodanski. The colors are drab and gray, and every setting seems to be muted and depressing. It might seem like an obvious atmosphere for such a film, but it's done well without being ominous to the point of distraction.

In any case, this film will ultimately be forgotten, but will probably benefit from the impulse rentals and screenings around this time of year. I was also taken aback by the title. Case 39 is a reference to the final case examined by Emily at the end of her workday (another cliche). However, it recalls Brad Anderson's vastly superior Session 9 (2001). If this was meant to be a homage, it backfires terribly, since it subconsciously reminds viewers of the better films out there. Or is it supposed to reference The 39 Steps? I couldn't find any plot similarities, but again, it's a bad titling decision to salute films that work on a better psychological level.

In searching for images to use in this piece, I came across a review written in the British newspaper The Guardian. This is a slight spoiler, but the article's headline was nearly perfect in its jab at the film's quality: "If only the producers had been sensible and marketed this Renee Zellweger horror as the movie in which Bradley Cooper vomits bees."


Andrew Rea said...

I've seen this film. It stinks! It's worth mentioning that there is only one reason this film exists: the financial success of Gore Verbinski's 2001 remake of The Ring. Same gray cast (pun intended), same creepy kid, same distraught parents ("Oh, what am I to do?!? I guess I just have to kill this child!"). The Ring cast a long shadow, and is still influencing very recent horror films (i.e. The Unborn or Insidious). But it's worth mentioning that scary kids are scary, though (SPOILER!) scary kids that are really demons pretending to be scary kids are decidedly NOT scary, and Renée Zellweger is indeed a terrible actress whose presence in this film negates any scariness it may have formerly possessed in script form.

James Yates said...

Andrew, thanks for your comments. This is slightly embarrassing to admit, but I still haven't seen The Ring (as I mentioned, I'm behind on horror films, and this review was a case of wanting to do one for the season and the film annoyingly staying with me).

Your mention of the reason for its existence is important, since it was filmed in 2006 and didn't get a release until 2010 (in the United States, at least). That's pretty telling.

Bob Turnbull said...

I saw this earlier this year and can only remember two things about it: 1) Zellweger was really, really bad in it and 2) the entire film was stinky.

I would likely argue against calling Zellweger a bad actress in general since she has done pretty good stuff in the past - but I probably wouldn't spend a lot of time doing it. B-)

Jamie, I would recommend The Ring and give the original Ringu a shot too. If you want creep and dread, I loved Ju-On: The Grudge.

James Yates said...

Bob, you make an excellent point...I had completely forgotten about Nurse Betty. She was very good in that one.

Another angle...some movies we go into expecting them to be bad, but just mindless entertainment, especially in the horror realm. I guess in a way, this film is insulting, since it strives to be a genuine, "intelligent" thriller and fails on so many levels. If this was supposed to be a silly B-movie, then it would change my review drastically.

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