Horror movie subjects, like celebrity deaths and buses, come in threes. Thus, trailing behind the latest rash of 'Bad Seed' pictures 'The Unborn' and 'Orphan' like some sulky teenager on a family holiday, comes the Renée Zellweger-starring Case 39 - another apparent anti-adoption screed from the director of 'Pandorum'. Clearly, Philip Larkin got it back to front, and Cyril Connolly was onto something: they screw you up, kids, especially other people's kids, while that pram in the hall almost certainly contains 57 varieties of pain. And little girls, of course, are absolutely terrifying. That's why Stanley Kubrick used not one but two of them in 'The Shining.'
The latest threat to homeland security is sad-eyed moppet Lillith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland). Despite whimpering that her hollow-eyed, crucifix-clasping parents "talk about sending me to Hell", Lillith's lank black hair is scraped back and tucked behind her ears, which everyone knows is movie shorthand for 'sneaky 'n' weird'. She also tilts her head sideways when she speaks, which even brain-damaged pitbulls dimly appreciate is the internationally-recognised symbol for 'run, run like the wind'. Now you mention it, she also shares a name with Frasier Crane's ex-wife, in turn named after a Hebrew storm demon associated with death, darkness and vengeance. All of which is lost on lentils-for-brains social worker Emily Jenkins (Renée Zellweger), who hauls her out of the kitchen oven after her folks attempt to bake her alive.
In a move even the filmmakers realise stretches credibility to twanging point, Emily temporarily adopts Lillith while she waits to be re-housed with foster parents who won't mistake her for a birthday cake. Unfortunately for Emily, what Lillith wants, Lillith gets. And what she really wants right now is an ice cream. Not just today, every day. See, this witchy cuckoo also possesses the ability to make people see and experience their own worst fears. So you'd better hurry up with that 99 Flake.
Before the first hour's up, Em's other cases and colleagues are slaughtering their slumbering parents with a tyre iron or being pestered to death by a plague of CGI hornets, vomited out of their every orifice. Meanwhile Em's barricading herself in her bedroom every night and attempting to burn her own house down, with the satanic little charge inside. "A damaged, deceitful, manipulative child is *not* a demon," insists grizzled, perma-tanned detective Mike Barron (Ian McShane). But can Emily convince her Barron knight that Lillith has got the very devil in her?
It sure seems as if Hollywood likes kicking foster kids under the table, judging by the haste with which Case 39 follows the controversial Orphan into the multiplexes. Or maybe the movie business has just put its finger on a hot topic of the day: horror movies are always monkeying around with contemporary fears and prejudices (it makes their case stronger). But is the concept of adoption actually becoming anathema to North Americans?
This July the Washington Post reported that the number of foster children being adopted in D.C. was "falling precipitously". And if a former Child and Family Services Agency staffer suggested "difficult cases" (over-twelves; siblings who didn't want to be separated) as possible causes, a pro-bono lawyer claimed "the District frequently reduces the annual subsidy" for those deciding to adopt their foster children. Could there be some kind of 'anti-adoption conspiracy' at work?
No, just plain old economics: originally slated for release in August 2008, then subsequently held back twice, Case 39 has been forlornly gathering cobwebs in the proverbial filing cabinet for over a year. Understandably so - it's terrible. We'd be embarrassed too. Former Oscar-winner Zellweger hasn't made a decent feature in years, and this is no trend-bucker. So it's not hard to figure out that when its producers saw Orphan cleaning up, thanks in part to the hype accrued via some knee-jerk lobbying (and - what a gift - a letter to Warner Brothers by concerned senators and congressmen who predictably hadn't even seen the movie in question), they quickly threw their own killer kid flick out with the trash. (Or rather they haven't - when this review was first written, Case 39 was going to be released any minute. Now, they've put it back AGAIN, for around the 6th time. Probably waiting to see how well Christian Alvart's Pandorum does first. Prediction: that'll bomb too. So, fellas, just how long do you think you can keep this up for?)
And make no mistake, Case 39 is diabolical; a laughable, wooden, hideously derivative pile of steaming demon poo. Horror films aren't exactly dainty when it comes to relieving other movies of their valuables, but Case 39 just ram-raids them out of the store: hell hounds (not to mention an entire premise) swiped from 'The Omen'; buckling, banging doors half-inched from 'The Haunting'; demonic possessions (and a friendly cop) purloined from 'The Exorcist'; a blight of stripey insects lifted from 'Candyman'; and accursed phone calls filched from J-Horror 'One Missed Call.'
Case 39 also asks for any number of other offences to be taken into consideration. While judging by the presence of Ian McShane and Adrian Lester, it has also pilfered its cast (hilariously and self-defeatingly billed in 'order of prominence') from a cosy BBC Sunday teatime drama. Bless our British actors all, but that's not a line-up that immediately inspires confidence in a horror movie: Bridget Jones and Lovejoy, together at last.