Early in "Case 39," Renée Zellweger's overburdened social worker, Emily, complains to her boss ( Adrian Lester) that she's buried in 38 active cases, right before he plops the file for you-know-what on her desk. One can't help experiencing the same dread about the exhausting flood of lackluster horror films that swamp our screens and, as "Case 39" unfolds, realizing we're enduring one more.
It didn't have to be that way, considering screenwriter Ray Wright's initially nifty setup. When presented with Lily, a pale, withdrawn and abused 10-year-old girl (Jodelle Ferland), and her even paler, more hollowed-out and sneery parents acting suspiciously, what's a do-gooder workaholic like Emily to do? The issue is forced when Mom and Dad shove Lily into the oven one night, then try to kill Emily and her cop friend, Mike ( Ian McShane), as they intervene just in time. But when Emily decides to take Lily in herself, the girl's increasingly precocious manner — and some tragic, seemingly unexplained events — lead Emily to believe her folks might have been on to something. Let's just say this is not a film for impending foster parents.
German horror hack Christian Alvart ( "Pandorum"), however, is hardly an able guardian himself of this material, routinely eschewing artful apprehension or terror for empty boo moments, like the tight close-up that begs for a sudden pop into the frame of a dog or a friendly face or a knock on a car window. Even more galling is how little mileage Alvart gets out of one of the most reliable of fright flick tropes, from "The Bad Seed" through "The Exorcist" and countless Japanese horror movies: the creepy little girl. It's not that Ferland herself isn't effective. Her slightly pulled features can evince a compelling illusion of distortion. Alvart just never builds her into a small-but-dangerous force. Plus, Ferland saying unsettling things in her birdlike timbre isn't nearly as effective a tension-rustler when she's sharing the screen with Zellweger, whose voice is even wispier and higher-pitched.
That said, Zellweger certainly tries to inject emotional reality into a scenario that grows increasingly ludicrous. But it's a lost cause when the movie around her is as dull as Emily's cubicle. It leaves "Case 39" playing like one more piece of multiplex in-box clutter, ready for the circular file in our moviegoing consciousness.