Did I not weep for those whose day was hard?
Was not my soul grieved for the poor?
But when I looked for good, evil came;
and when I waited for light, darkness came.
My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still;
days of affliction come to meet me.
Social worker Emily Jenkins (Renée Zellweger) would certainly be able to understand Job and his com plaints over his suffering. She is dedicated and compassionate in her work with troubled families, and understandably upset when her supervisor tosses the dossiers of three more cases on her desk. She is already overloaded, unable to give her clients the time and attention that they deserve. However, as she looks at the photograph of 10 year-old Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland), Case 29, her heart is stirred so that she soon is paying a call at Lilith’s home.
The parents, Edward Sullivan (Callum Keith Rennie) and Margaret Sullivan (Kerry O’Malley), appear so weird that she calls them in for a more in depth interview with her supervisor present. As her investigation progresses, she catches them trying to kill Lilith in their stove’s oven. The parents are sent off to an asylum and Lilith, pleading for Emily to take her home with her, to a temporary children’s home. Breaking her own rule about not getting too close to those whom she is helping, Emily secures custody of the girl while she looks for a suitable foster home. Soon dark, unexplainable things begin to happen—to Emily’s boyfriend Doug (Bradley Cooper), who as a psychiatrist is also working with Lilith, and to the man to whom Emily turns when matters seem to be really getting out of hand, Detective Barron (Ian McShane).
This film will remind veteran movie lovers of the 1956 film The Bad Seed (I have not seen the more recent Orphan), which at the time was a real shocker centering on a sweet little girl who murdered those who incurred her wrath. There was no supernatural demon involved, just the claim that some people are a “bad seed,” born bad without any sense of conscience and thus doomed to do horrible things. Case 39 raises the old issue of whether demons in the New Testament are to be taken literally or as most modern biblical scholars teach, as the ancient understanding of a symptom of mental illness. The characters are apparently totally secular so that no one turns to a clergyman as in the recent The Last Exorcism or the classic The Exorcist.
Case 39 starts slowly, and then, as the atmosphere of menace increases we become drawn into and immersed in the horror. A scene involving wasps mysteriously appearing in a bathroom is especially harrowing, doing for that insect what Hitchcock did for our feathered friends in Birds.) Case 39 offers no new twists on the evil child formula, but its star Renée Zellweger effectively elicits our sympathy so that at the climax we are rooting for her despite what she is led to do.
1. What do you think about the existence of demons? What other films have you seen which are premised that they do exist? C.S. Lewis fans might revisit his writings to see what he wrote about the devil and demons.
2. Why should the girl’s name Lilith give us a clue as to her nature?
3. How are we led to think the worst of Lilith’s parents? Their story a morality tale teaching that appearances can be deceiving?
4. What do you think of Emily’s plan to do away with Lilith? She never thinks of exorcism, does she? How is her plan, in a way, also an embracement evil? Akin to the ethics of war—kill the enemy to rid the world of evil? How does the ending break with the amoral endings of modern horror films?