Saturday, March 05, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"This is television, that's all it is. It has nothing to do with people."

- The Running Man (1987)

Friday, March 04, 2011

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

When I reviewed Satan's School for Girls (1973) earlier in the week, I opined that the 1970s likely represented the greatest decade for made-for-tv horror movies.  I still assert that's a fair statement, but it's only right to note that the 1980s produced quite a few genre high-points as well. 

Exhibit A may well be Joe Wizan and Frank De Felitta's exemplary Dark Night of the Scarecrow, a horror gem which originally aired on October 24, 1981 (just in time for Halloween...), on the CBS Saturday Night Movies

This TV-movie is not only cleverly-written and emotionally affecting, but visually accomplished as well, a legitimately cinematic trick-or-treat effort that would play well even on the big screen.

In short, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a good, old-fashion comeuppance, or "revenge from beyond the grave" story; the very kind that longtime reader of EC Comics will recognize, enjoy and cherish. 

In this case, the milieu in which the cosmic scales of justice are righted is the American South, specifically "Bogan County," Texas.

As Dark Night of the Scarecrow's narrative begins, a surly, unpleasant post office letter carrier, Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) complains to some of his redneck buddies about Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake), a mentally-challenged local boy who has been seen playing with a pre-adolescent girl, Marylee (Tonya Crowe), his best friend. 

Otis is certain -- absolutely certain -- that harmless Bubba is going to hurt, rape or kill the child.  Obsessed with Bubba, Otis mulls over doing something "permanent" to stop him.

When Marylee is injured by a fierce guard dog in a neighbor's yard, Bubba carries the bloodied girl home to her worried parents, crying that "Bubba didn't do it."   Despite his innocence, word quickly gets out that Bubba is responsible for Marylee's injuries, so Otis and three of buddies grab their rifles, hunting dogs, and a pick-up truck...and track the boy down like an animal. 

They eventually find the frightened Bubba, playing the "hiding game" in a local field; dressed as a scarecrow.   Otis and the others murder him, shooting Bubba at point-blank range twenty-one times.

Adding insult to injury, the judge in Bogan County -- part of the Good Old Boy network -- lets Otis and his buddies off scot free after Otis commits perjury under oath and claims that the murder was actually self-defense; that the handicapped Bubba was actually brandishing a weapon; a pitchfork that Otis himself planted on the corpse. 

Broken up and angry about the death of her son and this miscarriage of justice, Bubba's elderly mother warns Otis and his goons -- all so-called "men of the community" -- that "there's other justice in this world...beside the law."

The final stretch of Dark Night of the Scarecrow involves this "what you sow so shall you reap" dynamic. 

The scarecrow soon re-appears (in creepy, extreme long-shots) on the property of the murderers, an unmoving, lifeless symbol of a crime unpunished. 

Then, before long, each guilty man dies in what the legal authorities ultimately deem an "accident."  Harless Hocker (Lane Smith) ends up pulped in his wood chipper and Philby (Claude Earl Jones) is buried alive at the bottom of his grain solo.

Finally, Otis himself comes face-to-face with the scarecrow by darkest night in a lonely pumpkin patch...

What remains most remarkable and even poetic about Dark Night of the Scarecrow is the way in which director, Frank De Felitta, maintains the mystery and terror of the scarecrow/supernatural avenger. 

In each murder set-piece, for instance, the Scarecrow is never seen.  We only hear footsteps on the soundtrack, or get a brief P.O.V. stalk-shot.   

In one terrifying instance, we even see a hulking shadow inside Philby's house...just as the lights go off.  But otherwise, we never actually see the Scarecrow committing his just and bloody revenge against these redneck vigilantes.  Instead, we're left to wonder -- along with the intended victims -- if something supernatural is going on, and what it could possibly be.  Has Bubba returned from the dead?

Such questions are answered beautifully in the film's final two minutes, and specifically in a closing freeze frame that is both sad and as I wrote above, even poetic.  By this point in the drama, the menacing vigilantes are dead, and perpetually endangered Marylee is finally safe.  The director makes the decision to reveal his hand here; and the result is a memorable and shocking composition: one that acknowledges "otherworldly" justice but without the specter of fear or terror being involved.   It's a surprising, unconventional and almost lyrical moment in presentation; a perfect punctuation to a movie that has been -- in large part -- about human ugliness. 

Non-traditionally, Dark Night of the Scarecrow ends with beauty and a hand offered in love...the visual notion that friendship lasts, even beyond death.

But save for those valedictory moments, De Felitta commendably holds his fire throughout Dark Night of the Scarecrow.  The scarecrow is utilized to maximum effect throughout the film, but as just that: a scarecrow.  One who appears in the wide open fields, seemingly by magic, and stands there in long shot...unmoving. The scarecrow is a juggernaut waiting to come to life, waiting and waiting...

These shots are great because as viewers we expect the scarecrow to move, to come to life and burst into murderous action.  But De Felitta purposefully denies us that visual so that mystery is maintained and more than that, fear and anxiety build and build.  When will this avenging creature come to life?

The final shot, described above, relieves that mounting anxiety in an unexpected, emotional way, and it's all because of De Felitta's decision to not to reveal the Scarecrow in action, essentially a lumbering Jason Voorhees-type figure with a pitchfork.  Because we don't get that particular visual; the Scarecrow emerges as a larger more luminous threat in our psyches, in our fearful imaginations.

De Felitta proves an impressive director elsewhere too.  Rather than revealing the guard dog mauling Marylee, he cuts to a montage of garden gnomes, in close-up.  And he transitions from the wood chipper set-piece to a close-up of a bloody red ketchup dollop landing on Otis's plate.  In the former example, we get a metaphor for the townspeople. The gnomes, like the people of Bogan County, stand by unmoving and unaffected while an injustice is committed.  In the latter case, we get the idea that blood (or ketchup) is on Otis's hands (or plate...) because he was the ringleader who pushed the others to kill Bubba.

In terms of sub-text, Dark Night of the Scarecrow  really concerns racism -- or any "ism" that has taken hold of men who despise and deride any person who is different from the local norm. 

In this case, Otis and his brethren fear what Bubba -- a "physically grown" man might do to a local white girl  --  and set about to destroy him. They use the flimsiest of motivations to do so.  I

f this TV-movie were set in the Old South, the mentally-deficient Bubba might readily be replaced by an African-American.  But the point is absolutely the same.  Dark Night of the Scarecrow exposes the "good old boy mentality" and network that protects its own and seeks to destroy anyone who might look different, think differently, or not know his or her place in the established patriarchy.

The TV movie actually goes a bit deeper than that.  An almost throwaway line in the film marks Otis as a child molester, and there are some disturbing scenes in the film of Otis threatening the young Marylee.

But the important thing here is that Otis is guilty, we must assume, of the very crime that he pins on Bubba.  He is also "physically grown," after all, and apparently has worked out his unwholesome sexual urges before. 

So Dark Night of the Scarecrow gets at a critical point about these vigilantes.  Such folk often project their own behavior upon others; blaming others for crimes they themselves have committed.  It's all surprisingly nuanced, especially for a TV movie, and Charles Durning proves mesmerizing here as Otis Hazelrigg.  Never, ever does Durning reduce the character to cartoon dimensions.  Instead, Durning's Otis is a believable -- and terrifying -- face of hatred.

As I noted above, EC Comics also frequently traversed the realm of comeuppance "from beyond the grave."  I suspect this sort of story is so popular and long-lived because real life has never been, is not now, and likely never will be totally fair or just.   It's difficult to reconcile a belief in justice with the town's treatment of Bubba in Dark Night of the Scarecrow, for instance.  Hence the entrance of the "supernatural mechanism" in stories such as this one to fill that void. 

Dark Night of the Scarecrow expresses well the belief that justice is a universal constant, even if the scales of justice must be balanced outside the flawed auspices of man's law. 

But the great thing about this memorable TV-movie is that it goes one step further beyond meting out justice "eye for an eye"-style, to poetically suggest the beauty -- and endurance -- of good human qualities such as love and friendship.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Lectures and Programs: American Culture and the Final Frontier at Hampden-Sydney College

On Monday, March the 21st, 2011, Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia will be hosting me for a new JKM genre lecture entitled Space: 2011: American Culture and the Final Frontier. 

The lecture will survey and analyze science fiction television (particularly of the space opera variety) from the late 1950s up through today, or from The Twilight Zone through SGU, to put it another way.  

The focus will be on the ways that space programs change, decade to decade, based on the cultural, political, and international events happening in the world.  In other words, I'll be looking at the real-life context of the programs, and explaining how popular series exploited these contexts or were otherwise impacted by them.

Among the TV series discussed will be Lost in Space, Star Trek, Space:1999, Battlestar Galactica, V, Farscape, Firefly, and many more.

I'm really looking forward to visiting the campus, meeting with  the students of Hampden-Sydney College, and discussing a subject that I truly adore.

Space: 2011: American Culture and the Final Frontier will be open to everyone, not just students and faculty, so if you happen to be in Hampden-Sydney, Virginia on March 21st, I hope you'll attend.   The program begins at 4:30 pm sharp, in the Gilmer Room, 019.   

And I'll not only be discussing science fiction television with the students, I'll also be selling and signing copies of my books too, so I hope to see you there, if you can swing it.

Also -- since Joel is a little older now and ready to see the world -- I'm  jumping  back on the university/convention/library lecture circuit, starting with this exciting engagement in Virginia.   If  you or your university want to retain me for one of my horror or science fiction movies or TV lectures, just contact me by e-mail and we'll see what we can arrange.

I'll post more about the Hampden-Sydney College engagement and my next sci-fi seminar soon.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: Satan's School for Girls (1973)

All considerations of quality aside for the moment,  a conscientious reviewer has to give Satan's School for Girls (1973) some pretty serious plaudits over that incredible title. 

But then again, Satan's School for Girls comes to us from the great age of TV-movies; when they boasted colorful and memorable monikers such as Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), or A Cold Night's Death (1973). 

As the title makes abundantly clear, this made-for-TV movie was also produced during the rarefied age of  1970s Devil film: the wonderful spell between Brotherhood of Satan (1971) and The Exorcist  (1973).

Specifically, this Aaron Spelling TV-movie first aired on September 19, 1973, and later earned a reputation, according to The New York Times, as one of the most "memorable" made-for TV horrors of the disco decade.  It was even re-made in the year 2000, with Shanen Doherty in the lead role.

The original Satan's School for Girls stars fetching scream queen Pamela Franklin (And Soon the Darkness [1970], Legend of Hell House [1974]) as Elizabeth Sayers, a young woman investigating the apparent suicide of her beloved sister Martha. 

To that end, Elizabeth masquerades as a new student at Martha's former school, the exclusive and 300-year old Salem Academy for Women.

Elizabeth enrolls immediately in two classes: Behavioral Psychology with creepy Professor Delacroix (Lloyd Bochner) and an art class with hunky Dr. Clampett (Roy Thinnes).   In the latter class, Clampett urges the female students to "hang loose" and remember that everything in life is both "illusion and reality." 

Elizabeth soon befriends several students, including resourceful Roberta Lockhart (Kate Jackson), popular Jody (Cheryl Ladd) and the troubled Debbie (Jamie Smith-Jackson).  Debbie, in particular, appears afraid...and has painted a creepy portrait of the dead Martha trapped in what appears to be an old cellar.

Elizabeth locates that ancient cellar in her very dorm, Standish Hall, and learns from Roberta about a creepy local legend; about eight Salem witches who were hanged in a cellar just like that

After Elizabeth discovers that Debbie has also committed suicide, she investigates the files in the office of the Headmistress.  She learns that all the students at the school have been orphaned; just as Elizabeth herself has been orphaned.  She also learns that student files on Debbie and Martha are missing...

Then, late at night, when the power goes out, Dr.Clampett evacuates the campus save for Roberta and Elizabeth.  

In the dark, quiet loneliness of the cellar, Satan soon makes his play for eight young, impressionable and father-less souls to replace the ones he lost in Salem all those years ago. 

"I welcome what man rejects," he tells his would-be acolytes with open arms

And he's reserved a spot  just for Elizabeth...

Now, I'm not quite old enough (but almost old enough!) to remember Satan's School for Girls from its original transmission  Rather, I first saw it sometime in the early 1980s in weekend syndication.  I probably saw it when I was eleven or twelve, and it has stayed with me ever since.

And now, after watching Satan's School for Girls again, at least I have a better understanding of why that's the case. 

The movie, released on DVD by an outfit called "Cheezy Movies," looks like a relic from another lifetime.  The TV-movie is simple, straight-forward and even innocent in a weird sort of way by today's standards.  Yet some of the horror moments really do get the blood pumping.  This is a major accomplishment, because it's clear the movie was made for next to nothing.  There are no real visual or make-up effects to speak of, and almost the entire film takes place in just four of five interiors.

But Laurence Rosenthal's steroidal musical score works over-time to build shivers and anxiety, and director David Lowell Rich does an effective job keeping to the basics.  Many scenes have been lensed entirely at night, or in the dark, Gothic passages on the campus.  Thunder roars on the soundtrack, lightning crackles, and heavy doors creak regularly.  The fear expressed here -- simply -- is of being alone at night, in the darkness, and wondering if something malevolent might be hiding in the impenetrable blackness close-by. 

Nothing more complicated than that.

Yet it's amazing how many modern horror movies forget that it is the simple things that scare us the most.  A basement in the dark.  A storm at midnight.  The intimation of the diabolical.  Roy Thinnes in tight polyester pants...

Okay, I try not to do snark, in part because there are so many other places on the Internet where you can so readily find it, but if you're inclined to laugh or giggle at Satan's School of Girls, it's probably easy to do so.  I can't, in good conscience, deny that. 

The performances -- much like the narrative -- are oddly naive and almost child-like   But  if you're willing to buy into the movie (and it helps if you have some nostalgia for it), Satan's School for Girls unnerves in a very efficient, very 1970s fashion.  You want to giggle and assure yourself that a cheap TV-movie effort like this couldn't possibly bother you.

But just try watching it alone in the dark.  At night.  The cheesiness sort of evaporates and you find yourself in the midst of this very sincere, very straight-forward and eminently creepy tale.  Everyone involved really committed to it (just look at that actress screaming for her life in the still near the top of this post!) so what the hell is our excuse for not doing likewise, right?

And, if you dig just a little under the surface of Satan's School for Girls the movie actually features some interesting  ideas.  It's a movie about girls who don't have fathers, and who try to find a father figure in either Professor Clampett or Professor Delacroix.  Clampett urges the girls to "condemn nothing" and "embrace everything" -- the 1970s equivalent of "just do what feels good," and Delacroix treats the students like rats in a maze; hoping to awake them from their "passivity" should they ever encounter real "terror."

If you've seen the film, you know which of these guys is really the Devil in the disguise -- either the liberal artist or the paranoid psychologist -- but the push-pull between the clashing philosophies at least gives the viewer something to think about between scenes of screaming ingenues.

Satan's School for Girls is worth a curiosity viewing just for the cheeky title (as well as the bizarre opening sequence in which Martha grows terrified -- terrified I tell you! -- at the  sudden, unexplained appearance of not one, but two strange old men).  But more than that, if you let yourself buy into the premise of this 1973 made-for-TV movie, you might just get a good schooling in old-fashioned terror.

Pop Art: Power Records Edition

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Five Most De-Humanizing Rituals in 1970s Dystopian Cinema

I've been devoting considerable space here lately to science fiction cinema's unforgettable dystopias; those dark worlds of the imagination in which mankind takes a wrong turn on the road to a better future.  

These memorable and often haunting films dwell on such matters as overpopulation, food shortages, eugenics, and collectivist societies that snuff out all individuality and even humanity.

We've had great dystopian movies with us now for many decades.  In the 1960s we saw The Tenth Victim (1965) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966).  In the 1980s we saw Blade Runner (1982) and The Running Man (1987).  And recent decades have brought us such fare as Gattaca (1997), Minority Report (2002), Gamer (2009) and Surrogates (2009).

But the Great Age of Film Dystopias is unquestionably the 1970s; our nation's very own "crisis of confidence" decade.  The Energy Crisis, Watergate, the Vietnam War,  the Manson Family, Three Mile Island, Roe vs. Wade and the Iran hostage situation all became part of our national dialogue in what I often term the disco-decade. 

In terms of film history, those years between 1970 and 1979 also gave the world THX-1138 (1971), Z.P.G. Zero Population Growth (1972), Soylent Green (1973), Zardoz (1974), Death Race 2000 (1975), Logan's Run (1976) and many other examples of the genre.

In the days ahead, I hope to lay my hands on such harder-to-find dystopian efforts such as The Last Child (A 1970s TV movie), Amerika (a 1987 TV miniseries about a Soviet-takeover of the United States) and the grand-daddy of such dystopian imaginings, the not-currently-available-on-DVD  1984 (1984), an adaptation of Orwell's seminal literary work.

But before we get to such movie reviews, I wanted to pause here and acknowledge some of the qualities that make these cinematic speculations about our future so intriguing, and often so frightening. 

I looked back across my postings and saw that almost every 1970s film about dystopian futures shares one element in common.  All these films feature governments or other systems of control that turn human against human; man against his brother.  And they each do so, universally, utilizing some kind of futuristic technology or futuristic application of technology.

These films might thus be viewed as speculative endeavors and also as warnings about the shape of things to come; of future science or technology "run amok."  In all these future societies listed below, the government has created a new social "ritual" (a continental race, a form of legally-sanctioned punishment, a religious service, a public service, etc.) that actually runs counter to all that moral human beings currently hold dear.

So without further description, here are The Five Most De-Humanizing Rituals of 1970s Dystopian Cinema, by my assessment.

5.  THX Visits A Unichapel in THX-1138 (1971).  

In the future world of THX-1138, the act of going to Church and sharing worship with a community has been deliberately subverted by the government. 

Single-serving Unichapel kiosks instead service the worship needs of a vast subterranean city's population.  Although decorated with images of Jesus Christ, these unichapels offer platitudes and "Blessings of the Masses" rather than legitimate spiritual guidance. 

In fact, the Unichapels serve as a surveillance tool for the State because here citizens can unload all of their secrets, and thus Big Brother learns of them.  Off your drugs?  Falling in love with your roommate?  Now the State knows it all.

The Unichapel confession is so upsetting and de-humanizing a ritual, in my opinion, because it turns the focus of religion away from the needs and aspiration of a community (and doing good deeds) to a more selfish plateau.  The Unichapel sits just one.  There's no room for the community in it.  Worse, in adopting the "confessional" approach, the Unichapel actively turns penitents into informants.  And worst, those informants may actually be testifying against themselves.

4.) Make Thy Neighbor Suffer: ZPG Zero Population Growth (1972). 

Happen to know anyone in the neighborhood who may be in violation of the World Deliberation Council's Zero Birth Edict? 

Well, if so, just telephone the police force and it'll send a futuristic helicopter over to drop an air-tight inflatable tent over the violators (usually a Mother, father and infant)! 

Trapped in the death tent, these nasty law-breakers will expire of asphyxiation over the next 24 hours, and you get to see it close-up since the tent is transparent!    Another bonus: for doing your civic duty, the State provides you extra food rations

Again, the idea here is of a neighbor being turned into a "rat" to squeal on his or her neighbors.  The State not only encourages such spying and informing, it provides incentive in the form of rations. Perhaps even more disturbing is the notion that an (illegal) child or infant could be punished for his very existence.  Like many dystopian ovelords, the State in ZPG wants people numb to the idea of killing for a so-called "common good." 

Once more, something immoral (the murder of families...) is ritualized; part of the legal law-enforcement process; and a duty of every citizen.

3.) The Trans-continental race: Death Race 2000 (1975). 

In the year 2000, in the United Provinces of America, the President decrees that the trans-continental race is "the American way of life," "no-holds barred." 

But drivers in this race compete to become the new American champion by running down innocent pedestrians.  They do so explicitly for points.  A female pedestrian is worth 10 points, a teenager is worth 40 points, children under 12 are worth 70, and senior citizens carry a whopping 100 points.

So, around the country, TV viewers watch with blood-thirsty glee as their fellow citizens are run down by the death racers.  This set-up is no doubt meant by the filmmakers as the equivalent of gladiatorial games and Roman bread and circuses.  While the President luxuriates in foreign palaces and the American economy stumbles after the "Crash of 79," the public is distacted by bloody road games.    The Running Man is a variation on this theme as well. 

But think about it: a favorite weekly TV show is nothing if not a "ritual," and the bloody ritual of the cross-continent "death" race is essentially murder as entertainment; as must-see TV. Life is supposed to be precious, but viewers of the race are meant to cheer when their race runs over a team of doctors, or an old lady.  How de-humanizing is that?

2.) "Going Home:" Soylent Green (1973). 

In the overpopulated, undernourished city of New York in 2020 (where 20 million people are unemployed), you can have privacy and anything else you desire...but you have to die to get it. 

In particular, government centers (called sleep shops in the literary version of the material) euthanize the citizenry. 

But hey -- before you die, you can live like a king, able to enjoy you favorite music and a montage of lovely images.  It's like Sarah Palin's Death Panels meets an IMAX theater.  Who wouldn't want to enjoy that?  At least once...

Again, in order to solve desperate problems (food shortages and overpopulation), the State has devoted itself to the death of its very citizenry.  It's highly disturbing to think that the only way to enjoy life's pleasures in this future world is to embrace death.  And death by sleep shop is a sanctioned ritual of this future world.

1.) "Carousel:" Logan's Run (1975).

In the shopping-mall, sex-on-demand, plastic-surgery-on-demand 23rd century of Logan's Run, you can have anything your heart desires...except your thirtieth birthday. 

On your "LastDay," by order of the computer that runs the City of Domes, all would-be-30-year olds must report for "Carousel." 

And what is Carousel?  On the surface, it appears to be a joyous religious ritual in which the old folks compete for re-birth or "renewal" by floating to the top of the heap in a weird gravity pool with glowing lights.  In reality, the assembled citizenry of the city watch and cheer in the stadium as Last Day participants are disintegrated by ceiling-mounted laser devices.

Again, Carousel represents the most hideous and de-humanizing idea of this dystopia.  It is state-mandated murder (or population control), but Carousel is even more immoral than the sleep shops of Soylent Green, because it masquerades as a mystical, religious tradition.  Thus citizens are uninformed, and believed they are witnessing re-incarnation, not disintegration.  Here, it's the deception that is so ugly.  The State has made a religious ritual out of population control, and the people are so ignorant that they cheer for death. 

Of course, in the case of Logan's Run, at least there's the Love Shop (and lots and lots of sex...) before you have to die young.

Your mileage may vary on these cinematic dystopias, but which of these 1970s worlds do you believe offers the most de-humanizing ritual, and why?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Sunday, February 27, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Case 39 (2010)

Perhaps the most significant problem with the recent supernatural thriller Case 39 is that you feel like you've seen it 38 times before.  

Beyond the abundantly familiar premise involving an "evil child," this horror film is also over-long at an hour-and-forty-nine minutes. That considerable span grants the viewer plenty of time to puzzle over internal inconsistencies as well as confusing character motivations and overall meaning.   Even the surfeit of "jump scares" (an alarm clock ringing, a dog barking, etc.) can't cloak the movie's paucity of ingenuity or originality.

Director Christian Alvart does his best to ramp up the terror in the last half of the film, but even in terms of genre stylistics Case 39 relies on by-now old tricks.  For instance, the herky-jerky inhuman movement we've come to associate with ghouls in the post-The Ring (2002) Age is trotted out here; as are the almost-subliminal face morphing tricks, which -- through the auspices of CGI -- briefly reveal the "true" appearance of a malevolent demon (Paranormal Activity [2009]). 

About the only things the film really has going for it are a sterling cast that includes Rene Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland,  Ian McShane, Bradley Cooper and Callum Keith Rennie, plus the occasional sense of discomfort that some of the violent imagery generates.

Case 39 is the tale of a single, over-worked social worker, Emily (Rene Zellweger) who practices a "pro-active" kind of counseling.  The opening scenes in the film -- during which Emily is burdened with another new case (39) to add to her already-considerable workload -- are actually pretty good. 

Emily is trapped in a chaotic office cubicle at work in a state agency, and the film's color palette is grungy and washed-out, giving the impression of a world in collapse, of bureaucracy overloaded as endangered children pay the price for adult mistakes.  In this world, the phones are always ringing, red-tape trumps compassion, and endangered children are represented by stacks of files to be handled...eventually.

When Emily investigates the case of young Lilith Sullivan (Ferland), a girl who falls asleep at school and shows "serious signs of neglect," Case 39 reaches its apex of efficiency.   

In a very disturbing early sequence, Emily arrives at the Sullivan house (rendered in extreme high angle) and  interviews Lilith's parents. Her father (Rennie) is a monstrous, whispering creep who refuses to speak directly to Emily and who gives the film more kinetic energy than any of its CGI transformations.  This scene works because we never learn precisely what Rennie's character whispers to his "emotionally enslaved" wife during the interview, but his physicality and facial expressions are the stuff of coiled, secretive rage and perversion.  Rennie exudes dramatic, sick menace and basically steals the show.

Emily just knows something is wrong with this guy, and after a distressing late-night call from Lillith, rushes with her friend on the police force, Mike (McShane) to save the child from abusive parents.  What Mike and Emily discover at Lilith's house is authentically frightening.  Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan have stuffed the little girl into an oven...and turned on the gas

I must admit, this imagery unsettled me profoundly.  The sight of supposedly loving parents trapping their child inside a compact oven and attempting to burn her alive is one of nearly-archetypal horror (think the witch in Hansel and Gretel).

Of course, as is obvious from Case 39's plodding script, Emily draws the incorrect conclusions about Lillith and her nutty family.  The child is no innocent, and the Bible-thumping parents have good reason for wanting her dead; reasons that Emily eventually understands, especially after she brings Lillith into her own home and her friends mysteriously begin to die in strange "accidents."

Sound familiar?  You've seen this movie before, no? 

A recent variation on this theme was seen in the outstanding 2009 film, Orphan.  But Case 39 just isn't in the same league. 

For one thing, it takes a woefully long time for the dramatis personae to reach the obvious conclusion that Lillith is actually bad news.  The result is that you're always way ahead of the narrative and even the characters themselves, a fact which makes the movie feel both long-winded and unsurprising.  There aren't any real twists or turns in Case 39, and so audiences may grow frustrated or even restless as Emily tentatively goes step-by-step investigating the puzzle of the child's true nature.

Because the plot is so familiar and because it proceeds without much variation from other films of this type, an engaged mind will begin to ask meaningful questions.  Like: how come young Lillith can escape a fiery house (while locked in her bedroom...) but not a car sinking into the water?  She seems to teleport in the first instance, and that unique skill would certainly come in handy in the second. 

And furthermore, what is Lillith really after?  A character in the film suggests that she feeds on "kindness and decency," and that "she wants to know what your idea of Hell is and make you live in it."    So basically, the child just wants to make Emily miserable?  Well, it looks like the Department of Social Services was already doing a pretty good job of that before Lillith even entered the picture...

Movies about "evil children" are popular in the genre (and with audiences, generally) because we fear the corruption of innocence in our culture today, and because youngsters in film universally represent tomorrow, or the future.  If children are evil, it's the end of hope; the beginning of the end of the human race.  Case 39 treads into that territory, but ultimately in a confusing and contradictory way. 

By that, I mean that there seems to be a critique of child psychology embedded in the film.  Emily asks Doug if he remembers a time when people were simply "bad," "before everything had a diagnosis and a justification."  That's an interesting observation, which I've thought about myself in regards to John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), but the movie doesn't really present anything besides child murder as an alternative to clinical diagnosis and justification.  The film gets a lot of mileage out of Lillith mocking Emily and her profession.  "We help families communicate and learn healthier ways to resolve conflict," etc.

But what's the point? That sometimes children are  Evil and you have to pull a Susan Smith on them and drown them instead of trying to help them?

I'm not certain that's really an argument the movie is serious about making, or any movie would want to make.   But all the negative talk in Case 39 about psychology makes you think the movie is trying to make a serious point about how our contemporary culture views evil. 

For a really good, consistent (and deeply disturbing) horror movie on that topic, about psychology and the nature of evil, I'd recommend Mr. Frost (1990) instead.

Still, there are some elements of Case 39 that I admired.  Director Alvart has a way of finding interesting visual "moments" that enhance the picture and the movie's overall sense of dread.  For instance, I like the repeating imagery of Lillith spinning round and round in a chair at Emily's office, like she's a tornado or some other force of (super)nature. 

I also admired an almost throwaway shot of a frightened Emily stepping across a case-file on her hallway floor.  By that point in the film, Emily has wounded her foot, and so she leaves a small blood spatter on the psychological assessment form; a nice way of suggesting that blood-letting and violence has supplanted psychology. 

There's even a wicked visual joke late in the film: As Emily prepares to burn down her own house (starting with Lillith's room), we get an extreme close-up, insert shot of a book of matches.  Clearly visible on the matchbook is the warning  "keep away from children."

Well, except in case of demon, anyway...

Make no mistake, there are plenty of worse horror movies than Case 39, but for the most part this one feels rote and by the numbers.   "She saw you coming a mile away," Mr. Sullivan tells Emily, late in the film, and that observation is also the best description of the film's overly-familiar story.

You'll see it coming a mile away.