Horror Movie Review: Case 39 (2009)

“Some cases should never be opened” is the tagline for this horror movie that centres on an idealistic social worker’s attempt to rescue a young girl from her abusive parents only to find out the young girl may not be as innocent as she seems.

The movie is directed by Christian Alvart and stars Renee Zelwegger alongside smaller roles from Bradley Cooper and Ian McShane. It is called Case 39 as it is announced at the start of the movie as being the 39th case that Emily Jenkins (Renee) will be working on. The case itself is an investigation into the family of a 10 year old girl called Lillith Sullivan, played by Jodelle Ferland, whose grades have been deteriorating and who appears to be emotionally troubled at school.

Emily visits the family home, convinced the parents are being abusive towards the child, and after a brief sit down with the parents, leaves even more certain then she was before. Lillith’s parents, played by Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O’Malley, are disheveled, aggressively rude and just all round weird and Lillith looks genuinely scared of them so it is understandable why Emily is convinced they are the bad guys. With no proof though, the best she can do is to give Lillith her phone number and tells here to call if she is ever frightened while Emily tries to enlist the help of local Police Detective Mike Barron (Ian McShane).

Eventually the call comes one evening and Emily, with support from Detective Barron dash round to the family home to help Lillith. Upon arrival they here screaming and when they bust inside they find her parents have tied her up and tossed her into their pretty huge oven, which is turned on. A fight ensues and the little girl is released while the parents are arrested and eventually sentenced to a mental asylum.

case 39 parents

This first section of the film is quite unsettling as you witness, what appear to be, insane parents putting their innocent child through a horrific ordeal. It is annoyingly obvious that the little girl is not as innocent as portrayed but still, violent abuse of a child will always make for uncomfortable watching. This first section is probably also the better part of the film unfortunately.

With Lillith’s parents now locked away, the social care scheme attempt to find a foster home for her while Lillith plays on the heartstrings of Emily by asking if she can stay with her. Emily, being the nice person she is, agrees and is awarded custody of the child for the 3 – 4 week waiting period while a foster home is found. Lillith also attends group counseling sessions with Douglas J. Ames (Bradley Cooper) with a collection of children who have faced similar ordeals.

With Lillith now living with Emily, things step up a notch starting with one of the other children from Lillith’s counsel sessions. The child called Diego, played by Alexander Conti, kills his parents with a tire iron while they sleep and it turns out he did it after he received a phone call that originated from Emily’s house. How these abused children have such regular access to phones is beyond me though. As suspicion rises about Lillith, Douglas has her for a counseling session one on one where she turns his questions on their head and starts challenging him on his fears. She leaves him feeling fearful from her subtle threatening behavior and he confides in Emily that something isn’t quite right with Lillith. Later that night he receives a phone call which eventually starts a scene where there are a mass of hornets exiting his body via his ear, nose eyes and mouth. In mad panic, he trips and kills himself. A coroner announces the death as probable suicide at the scene where not a single hornet is found.

Case 39 hornets

As Emily grows more fearful, she goes to see Lillith’s parents at the asylum where they tell her she is not a child after all but is a demon that feeds on emotion and uses people’s fears against them. Not too long after this both parents meet their end at the hands of their own fears. Emily once more enlists the help of Detective Barron who is skeptical until he receives his own call from Lillith but he is soon also out of the picture when he accidentally blows his own head off with a shotgun while fighting off imaginary dogs.

Around this time Lillith has stopped with the little girl act and is now quite up front to Emily about simply doing what she wants or losing everyone she knows as well as her own life. After repeated slightly creepy moments of Lillith acting threateningly towards Emily along with supernatural moments such as shaking walls, Emily sedates Lillith and sets fire to the house to burn her and end her in the flames inside.

While standing outside watching the fire, she looks down and unsurprisingly Lillith is standing there beside her. A policeman tells them to follow him to the station so he can find temporary accommodation for them and en route, Emily makes a sudden detour and speeds up. She turns the tables on Lillith by suddenly no longer showing fear and drives off the edge of a pier into a lake/river. She locks Lillith in the boot of the car from inside the car while underwater and then escapes after breaking free from Lillith’s grip who is no longer in human form. Her breaking the water’s surface sees the film reach its end.

Case 39 - Lillith

All in all, despite a good performance by a creepy Jodelle Ferland, the film is pretty flat and very unoriginal. There is very little in the way of scares and considering the director had 4 or 5 deaths to work with based on their own fears, I found that really disappointing as he could have gone to town on it. Renee Zelwegger is a sobbing and squealing mess which would be understandable but for the sudden dramatic change right at the end when she is just no longer afraid of anything.

There is no explanation to the origins of the demon either which, while not necessary, would have been interesting.

There is nothing wrong with the acting on anyone’s part really, it appears well produced, soundtrack is standard fare but demon children have been done before and more importantly, done a lot better. The house on fire though looks absolutely terrible though.

Case 39 fire

Other than a few uncomfortable moments of sad children, the film lacks any real suspense and is predictable from the first few minutes. The ending is weak and rushed and would have been better had the alternate ending from the DVD been used where both Lillith and Emily are rescued by a stranger with Emily being carted off to the asylum and Lillith being put into a new foster home. At least the first ending should mean there won’t be a sequel though.

While not the worse film I have ever watched, it is definitely one of the most predictable. Not a single original idea is attempted and the director seems happy to just take other people’s ideas and copy the formula. Some decent acting turns it into something that is watchable, but only once. A creepy child adds a little but the film has absolutely no scares and no real horror which is an issue for a horror film. Even watching hornets come out of someone’s eyes is done weakly and offers no discomfort.

Give this one a miss, unless there really is nothing else available to watch.


  • Brendan Fisher

    Owner/Editor/Writer/YouTuber - Heavy Metal and reading, two things I have always loved so they are the two areas you will find most of my reviews. Post apocalyptic is my jam and I always have a book on the go and have for decades now. From a metal perspective, age has softened my inadequacies and I now operate with an open mind, loving many bands from many sub genres but having a particular admiration for the UK underground scene. In my other time, when not focused on Dad duties and work, I try to support the craft beer movement by drinking as much of it as I can and you will also find me out on the streets, walking. I love walking, I love exploring new places and snapping nature photos as I go.

Case 39
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