Silver Screen: Case Thirty-nine *

Silver Screen: Case Thirty-nine  *
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Silver Screen: Case Thirty-nine *
Bryan Miller

If the first thirty-eight cases weren’t enough to convince you that René e Zellweger sucks, Case Thirty-nine should do the trick.

The inexplicably shiny, plastic-looking actress has hawked her facile cute-poses and stilted line readings in movies both mediocre (Leatherheads) and bad (New in Town, Cinderella Man), but never has she pulled duty in a movie as lifeless and ambitionless as Case Thirty-nine, a bloodless (both literally and figuratively), scare-free tour through the Museum of Horror Movie Cliché s and Shortcomings.

Zellweger stars as Emily, a social worker so dedicated she can’t even spare the time to have sex with suitor and fellow person-of-the-people Doug (Bradley Cooper). Her fervor for helping needy children, which the script all but directly explains comes from her late mother’s homicidal apathy, kicks into overdrive when she meets Lillith (Jodelle Ferland). The little girl’s father (Callum Keith Rennie, of Battlestar Galactica and Californication) seems intent on doing her in, so Emily intervenes and gets custody of the girl.

But the innocent little tyke turns out not to be so innocent, and may not even be a tyke after all. As soon as Emily takes in Lillith, the people around her start to meet mysterious, grisly fates. Could the little girl be responsible?

Of course the little girl is responsible. Director Christian Alvart (of the uneven but interesting sci-fi flick Pandorum) telegraphs that from the beginning. But the movie’s lack of surprises are coupled with bizarre and often vague twists that make Case Thirty-nine both agonizingly predictable yet weirdly unclear.

The killer’s supernatural power is to make the victims hallucinate some trauma, then kill themselves in a futile effort to escape the mental projection of horror. It’s actually an identical scheme to that of the tiny Gremlins ripoff monsters in 1988’s Hobgoblins, which was brutally sent up in a particularly good episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Unlike Hobgoblins, though, Case Thirty-nine isn’t garishly awful and audaciously cheap, but grindingly competent and relentlessly bland.

Occasionally Alvart evinces something like flair, but even then it’s misguided. Case in point: A scene in which Cooper believes himself to be crawling with hornets. It’s a potentially cringe-inducing scene (and probably the movie’s best), but the squirm-factor of being prey to (and host of) hundreds of writhing bees is undercut by the bad computer effects that fail to bring the bugs themselves to life.

The only element keeping Case Thirty-nine intermittently watchable is the presence of two top-notch supporting actors, the aforementioned Rennie and Deadwood’s Ian McShane as a grizzled police detective assisting Emily (even though the specifics of his relationship to her remain murky-- is he her uncle? Dad’s old friend?). Both men bring enough gravitas to their scenes that they mostly overcome the limitations of the script, which are significant. But they can only do so much to distract the viewer from Zellweger, who is utterly out of her depth in even this kind of shallow water.

In fairness to her, a handful of cheap music-cue scares and a false ending or two do not a horror movie make, and that’s about all Case Thirty-nine has to go on. The movie was shot in 2006 but languished on shelves for years before eventually trickling into theaters in Australia and New Zealand and, eventually, here. Note to filmmakers: You’re supposed to shoot movies in New Zealand, not premiere them there.