Review in a Hurry: When social-worker Renee Zellweger adopts a demon kid with a penchant for making people hallucinate their fears and kill themselves, a lot of logic goes out the window. But the scares go top-notch thanks to a creepy performance by young Jodelle Ferland.
The Bigger Picture: If a movie's been on the shelf since before Bradley Cooper got in shape, or Jodelle Ferland hit puberty proper, it's a bad sign. And to finally open it opposite Let Me In—the most-hyped horror movie about a killer little girl this year—well, that doesn't smack of studio smartness.
And initially, silliness abounds. Zellweger's Emily, overworked with 38 cases, gets handed the 39th one and discovers Lilith (Ferland), whose name alone should be a warning sign. That, and the fact that her parents look like zombies. Plus they try to cook the kid in the oven one night.
Emily decides that the best thing to do, hugely unprofessional as it may be, is to adopt lil' Lilith herself, at least temporarily. The parents get locked away in an institution after Ian McShane beats the crap out of them, so all seems well.
Except that anyone who's seen The Ring knows what's coming: the girl was evil all along, and deserves to die. She likes to make cell-phone calls full of distortion, and give people visions of their worst fears until they harm themselves irreparably (sorta like in Young Sherlock Holmes, but with more Bradley Cooper wasp-puking).
Why, and how, is she doing this?
Well, that's one aspect of Case 39 that's kinda brilliant—it doesn't concern itself too much with explaining the backstory or motivations of its monster, which makes her all the more irrationally frightening (no obligatory scenes of Zellweger Googling old newspaper clips or ancient folklore, thankfully).
Ferland, already a burgeoning scream queen at an awfully young age, has faced horrors before in the likes of Silent Hill, the Twilight Saga: Eclipse, and Tideland. It would appear that she's just been itching to turn the tables and do the scaring herself. As Lilith, her tantrums get some minor digital enhancement, but it's her regular smiley-face that becomes genuinely unsettling.
True, the script may have plot holes that could trip up M. Night Shyamalan, but Lilith is one of the most chilling creations to hit the horror screen in a long time, and the frights she elicits elevate the movie around her.
The 180—a Second Opinion: That orange, digital, roaring whatsit in all the trailers? Not in the movie, ever. So if you wanna know what it is, keep guessing.