Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Case 39

I remember Spike Lee in tears whilst being interviewed on Inside The Actors Studio[1]. He was talking about the making of Malcolm X (1992) and how Warner Bros tried to shut him down. Only direct action from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby amongst others saved the film to completion. I remember thinking at the time - they can do that to Spike Lee[2]?

They can do that to Martin Scorsese. Paramount pulled the plug on The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) in 1983 (turns out that wasn’t a bad move). The point is no matter whom you are, however successful you may be, in Hollywood, and in this life, trouble comes.

Case 39 is that anomalous horror film: big budget and A-listed. Renée Zellweger heads a cast that includes noted British thespians Adrian Lester and Ian McShane. All this could not save the movie from a protracted release. Oft delayed films can be either as good as Trick r Treat (2009) or as bad as Carriers (2009). We await Shutter Island[3].

Case 39 was dumped into North American theatres on 1st January.

The opening credits have a similar mise-en-scène to Candyman (1992). Indeed both films share a similar structure; this is the intelligent horror film that requests its audience to take it seriously. Candyman opened with a signpost informing the audience that this is legend. Case 39 has neither signpost nor prologue which is to its credit. This story is firmly set in everyday reality; Renée Zellweger’s main character is a social worker.

The brilliance of Case 39 is that the audience is behind the curve. We watch from the point of view of Zellweger. We see what she sees - to a point. That point is a partial reveal to the audience. Halfway through the movie Zellweger is off camera during a noted scene. We learn what she doesn’t know. This enhances the horror. From this point we fear for the main character.

The mechanics of Zellweger fostering Lilith are to be ignored – call it horror film license. Ignore too the dynamics between Zellweger and Adrian Lester. It is the black boss syndrome. In Hollywood whites have an attitude to black authority be it subtle or as overt as in Se7en (1995). In real life there is Barack Obama[4].

Zellweger carries the movie with aplomb in the dramatic scenes. This however is a horror film. Unfortunately she is not up to task where it matters. A-listers in horror films should be viewed with the suspicion of a carpetbagger in Baghdad. I can understand why the Hollywood elite are jumping on the horror bandwagon - we are in a golden age – but movie stars should be forced to watch the late Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man (1973) before setting foot in this genre. If you’re not prepared to bring it on set and leave it on screen then stay on the red carpet and inside your glossy magazines.

The British director Shane Meadows observed that though the finished product makes it look easy extracting a fine performance from a child is anything but. Jodelle Ferland plays Lilith albeit badly. Her acting was topsy turvy. Her diction and delivery sounded like recitation. She has a look but the director wasn’t able to yield much else out of her. However everyone else brought their capabilities to screen: Lester, McShane, Kerry O’Malley and Callum Keith Rennie as the parents and even Bradley Cooper as the insipid wannabe boyfriend.

This film is shot in 35mm widescreen. It makes for a glorious visual feast of angles, textured foregrounds and detailed backgrounds. There is a splendid use of motifs eg a spinning office chair and peas on a plate. However the reveal can make or break a horror film. I didn’t see the breakdown coming. By the time it arrived I was already angry with Zellweger’s sabotage job. Paramount knows why they delayed this film for almost two years.

Turns out that wasn’t a bad move.

Read more Thrill Fiction: The 10 Best Horror Films of 2009
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