Directed by: Adrián García Bogliano
Run time: 91 minutes
The Lowdown: The latest film by Spanish writer/director Adrián García Bogliano, Scherzo Diabolico, is a blistering return to form from the mastermind who previously delighted genre fans with “Cold Sweat,” “Penumbra” and “Here Comes the Devil.”
Scherzo Diabolico, which roughly translates to “diabolical joke” in English, represents Bogliano’s complete reinvention of the traditional hostage thriller.
The film is its own diabolical joke – on the viewer – by completely subverting expectations at nearly every turn. What begins as a quiet meditation on normal everyday life issues quickly and unexpectedly transforms into a gritty, unsettling and shocking hostage drama before morphing once again, in its fantastic third act, into a terrifying examination of the manifestation of evil that culminates with an explosion of grisly violence.
When Scherzo Diabolico starts, we are introduced to Aram, a nebbish accountant whose wife consistently degrades him for not making enough money and his son pretends to be a superhero. Aram does everything expected of him at work, but is repeatedly refused the opportunity for overtime pay, despite his success helping some of the firm’s less savory clients avoid criminal charges for financial fraud.
We know something is up with Aram because in an early scene, while dealing with his elderly father at an assisted living facility, he uses a choke hold to render his father unconscious while watching a timer to see how long his father remains unresponsive.
Bogliano employs this trick often, allowing normal everyday activities to serve as a training ground for Aram’s plan. In one chilling and hysterical scene, Aram convinces his son to play dead so he can practice carrying the child’s weight through their home, timing his movements.
The reason for these sessions soon becomes clear. Aram has decided to kidnap the high school-aged daughter of his boss in an effort to disrupt and distract his boss so Aram can take over his position. The kidnapping goes as planned, but Aram continues seeking advice from unlikely sources as to how to intensify the situation to expedite the desired result. His best resource for the knowledge he needs is also one of the film’s highlights – Aram visits with a female escort, talking at length with her about different things – using restraints effectively, invoking disgust in a parent by exposing a child’s sexuality.
As his plan takes hold, Aram finds the reversal of fortune he hoped for. He gets the promotion and increases his revenue, pleasing his wife. He takes a mistress in the form of a young woman at his office who views his newfound confidence as intoxicating, thereby finding the sexual satisfaction that had long eluded him. And he is able to compartmentalize his behavior, convincing himself that he has successfully moved past this one awful act that he had to perform in order to better himself and better provide for the people he loves.
To his credit, Bogliano does such a good job developing and fleshing out his characters, particularly Aram, that we, as viewers, actually tolerate his actions. We identify with his plight. We find moments to sympathize and even empathize with him because his personal quandary is not unlike similar situations that we all face at one time or another. Who hasn’t worked extra hours for no pay even when it was deserved? Who hasn’t tried vainly to satisfy a loved one to the point of feeling overwhelmed and unappreciated?
Aram is not a monster. He is not the bad person so often depicted in films as having no redeeming qualities. He’s a sad sack of a guy who did what he had to do in order to silence his harpy wife and find some measure of peace and satisfaction in the world. He saw an opportunity and he took it and in doing so, he proved himself to be far more capable and calculating than anyone might ever have given him credit for.
And that’s when the diabolical joke so prominently teased in the film’s title truly comes into play. Suffice to say, the third act of Bogliano’s film flips everything on its head, and whoa boy, does it ever smack us square in the teeth.
It’s an amazing accomplishment. A brazen display of filmmaking prowess. I loved Scherzo Diabolico, and I plan on making as many friends as possible watch it. I think you will too.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Yes.
Nudity – Yes.
Gore – Yes.
Drug use – No.
Bad Guys/Killers – Keeping up with the Jones’ just got a lot more deadly.
Buy/Rent – Buy it.
Emelie (MPI, 82 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Emelie is an anomaly. It’s a subversive slice of unconventional filmmaking disguised as a conventional home invasion thriller. Rather than answer the bulk of questions raised by its central story, director Michael Thelin opts to let the viewer’s imagination fill in many of the blanks. At its heart, Emelie is a horror film about every parent’s worst nightmare – a bad babysitter with evil intentions left alone and unsupervised with their children. But there seems to be a bigger story surrounding the action on screen, one that sadly, oddly is never explained. The movie opens with a young woman being kidnapped in broad daylight. It then jumps to a traditional family home where the parents are trying to plan an anniversary dinner with three children of varying ages rampaging throughout the house. When the babysitter arrives, a last-minute substitute for the usual sitter, all appears normal. The sitter is young, attractive and keenly interested in the couple’s youngest child. As soon as the parents leave, things get weird. The sitter encourages the kids to defy their parent’s rules. She lets them paint on walls, eat whatever they want and play games designed to make them uncomfortable without knowing why. One particularly queasy activity involves the sitter playing a video of the parents having sex, although that is never shown on screen. Meanwhile, someone appears to be watching the parents while they dine out, keeping tabs on their whereabouts. As with similar movies in this genre, eventually one of the children, the oldest, figures out that something is not right with the sitter. Then the girl whom the sitter replaced shows up to check on the kids and bad things start happening in rapid succession. Emelie would have been a better movie and easier to recommend as essential viewing if it had taken time to flesh out its backstory and provide some insight into why the sitter and the man surveilling the family were in cahoots. It ends with an ominous nod to a potential sequel or continuation. Whether that movie gets made likely depends on the rental success of Emelie.
Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre (Shout! Factory, 83 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Cult B-movie writer/director Jim Wynorski has 100 credits to his name on IMDb dating back to 1984.
Some of his films are among my most favorite guilty pleasures: “The Lost Empire,” his first directorial assignment, a glorious mash-up of women’s prison exploitation flicks and Indiana Jones-style adventure serials; “Ghoulies IV,” if only because it confirmed my love for hot women in shiny black PVC; and “Demolition High,” a ridiculously violent Corey Haim vehicle about an urban assault at a high school co-starring Alan Thicke AND Dick Van Patten.
Wynorski’s style, both as a director and a writer, played straight to the awkward 16-year-old still trapped in all of us, the inner-kid who laughed uncontrollably at potty humor, who still got giddy at the sight of bare breasts and who fantasized about being the hero if an urban assault ever happened at our high school.
More recently, Wynorski’s oeuvre has been firmly fixed in soft-core parodies like “The Breastford Wives” and bad-CGI SyFy Channel creature features like “Dinocroc vs. Supergator.”
I had high hopes for Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre if only because of it cast, (I can’t lie, I love Traci Lords), and its silly subject matter (a land shark terrorizes a handful of scantily-clad, buxom female inmates), which brought hope that maybe Wynorski had returned to his former form and had delivered a worthwhile B-grade classic.
Sadly, that’s not the case. Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre is not so-bad-it’s-good. It’s just plain awful. Trust me, I tried. I mean, I really, really tried to get behind it and cheer it on. But there’s no saving a turkey when the turkey doesn’t want to fly.
Submerged (Shout! Factory, 99 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Submerged literally begins with its main cast being driven in a customized limousine and crashing into a lake, sinking to the bottom. As water slowly fills the cabin, the driver and his passengers must try to remain calm while figuring out how to escape. For a simple concept, Submerged deftly navigates between white-knuckle thriller and character-driven drama while using flashbacks to fill in the particulars of its story. It’s an OK time distraction but not the attention-demanding, can’t look away-type thriller you might expect.
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