The Sister of Ursula
1978, Italy. Directed by Enzo Milioni
By 1978, the giallo cycle was pretty much over. Beginning more or less with Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), then hitting a crescendo with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Deep Red (1975), the lurid blend of style, old fashioned whodunit, sex, and violence was regarded as somewhat old hat as the horror film shifted its obsession away from giallo and toward their next natural progression, the slasher film. For the most part, and with a few notable exceptions, post-1978 giallo were like glammy, prancing hair metal bands who hit the scene a month after Nirvana. They were the Danger Danger or Von Groove of the giallo world. Mind you, the Italians weren’t going to let a good thing go until they drained it of every last drop of blood and then some, especially since the giallo formula could be so easily tweaked to deliver a slasher (and indeed the distinction between the two is blurry, though gialli generally have an older cast wearing cooler clothes) or a sexploitation film.
As far back as 1971’s Slaughter Hotel, the giallo had been flirting with explicit sexuality. The primary difference between then and 1978, the year in which The Sister of Ursula (La sorella di Ursula) was released, is that Slaughter Hotel, for all its absurdity and ill-considered medieval weapons displays, still tried to be a somewhat stylish murder mystery in between all the sex. Director Fernando Di Leo might have been slumming it compared to the usual quality of his work, which was generally quite high, but even when he was making a bad film, he couldn’t actually make a bad film. He was to much the professional and too talented as a director. Not so for Enzo Milioni, the director of The Sister for Ursula and very little else. This is his rookie outing, and although he does manage to complete the film, there’s not much more to be said about it than that. The murders are silly, the pace is off, and Milioni has no idea what to do when he isn’t filming long scenes of sex, masturbation, and star Stefania D’Amario undressing in ways that take far longer than it would take a normal human to accomplish the same task. The Sister of Ursula is happy to drop the “thriller” part of erotic thriller and concentrate on the erotic tot he degree that it’s not even particularly erotic. Even when it does get down to the business of murder, it’s a decidedly sexual take on the act, given the movie’s rather unique choice of murder weapons.
Austrian sisters Ursula (Barbara Magnolfi, Sergio Martino’s The Suspicious Death of a Minor, Argento’s Suspiria) and Dagmar (Stefania D’Amario, Lucio Fuli’s Zombie and Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City) have come to Italy’s Amalfi Coast in search of their mother, who left them when they were young. Their father has just died, and the sisters want to share their inheritance with their absent mother. Their effort to find their mother is relegated mostly to hanging out at the hotel, seeing nightclub acts, and occasionally perching on the balcony or down on the beach. Ursula has been particularly affected by the death of their father, a fragile mental state that is expressed mostly by having Barbara Magnolfi sneer at and insult everyone while pouting like a child. Dagmar does her best to care for and tolerate her sister’s outbursts, which is oddly compassionate in a genre where most trauma is met with reactions like “So you were raped by a sex maniac who killed your boyfriend, get over it.” But don’t worry. Dagmar’s empathy for her sister will not be reflected in the way she or anyone else reacts to the murders that are about to spoil everyone’s holiday.
The hotel the sisters have checked into is a typical “Italian sexploitation film” hotbed of sleazy activity being perpetrated by shady characters. Local hunk Filippo (Marc Porel, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling and The Psychic) splits his time between romancing hotel lounge singer Stella Shining (Yvonne Harlow) and shooting heroin, which is provided to him by the hotel’s manager, who supplements his resort income by dealing smack so that he can keep himself well stocked in cravats and velour leisure suits. The manager’s wife Vanessa (Anna Zinnemann, a seasoned veteran of the Italian exploitation racket who has appeared in the fumetti caper Il marchio di Kriminal; the spaghetti western Shoot the Living and Pray for the Dead; gialli The Bloodstained Butterfly and Hallucination Strip; and Eurocrime films Gang War in Naples, Day of Violence, and The Big Racket) is carrying on a lesbian affair with local young hot thing Jenny (Antiniska Nemour). Pretty much everyone else in the hotel seems to be moonlighting as a prostitute. However, the rooms are clean, the lobby is nice, and the lounge seems lovely. In other words, it’s a fun place until the murders start happening.
The first victim of the mysterious maniac is a curvy prostitute, but others follow. Soon a pattern emerges: a woman will engage in a very lengthy and repetitive sex scene, either with themselves or someone else, then while they’re basking in the post-coital glow and puffing a cigarette, someone will show up to murder them, making sure that the focus of their ire is the genital region. Although The Sister of Ursula contains sex scenes that flirt with the pornographic, they are still mostly composed of the tried and true elements of giallo sex scenes, which is lots of people mashing their noses against one another’s collar bones while the camera lingers lovingly on elbows, crotches, and parts of the body filmed in such extreme close-up that not even a skilled anatomist would be able to discern what they are. On the plus side, the film boasts a lot of attractive people willing to put pretty much everything out there. On the minus, the scenes themselves go on for interminable length and repeat themselves, like a long-lasting lover who is, despite his stamina, not actually good at lovemaking.
This seems to have been the only way Enzo Milioni could achieve a feature length run time. Everything goes on for several minutes longer than it needs to. Even for someone more than happy to just sit back and watch the flesh, it gets to be monotonous. This is basically a sex film masquerading as giallo, and as such it’s primary job is to deliver sex and nudity. In one of the film’s early scenes, Stefania D’Amario’s Dagmar strips and changes into a robe while Ursula unpacks her suitcase. There is a difference between stripping and changing clothes. One takes a while, involves some skill and artistry. The other is a task to be complete. Dagmar takes as long to change into her robe — caressing her own sides and striking poses for no one other than, one assumes, her sister — as most people would take to actually fashion a dressing down from scratch. And lest you think some incestuous lesbian incitement is going on, rest assured that’s not the case. Dagmar goes about her business oblivious to the fact that Ursula is lingering around. But at least Dagmar is naked when she gamely kills five or six minutes of the film’s run time. For her part Ursula is absorbed by the fascinating task of removing things from her luggage, staring at each item, rotating it in her hands, and finally putting it down so she can move on to the next item.
Other of the sex scenes seem to have been conceived not just by someone who has never has sex, and not just by someone who has never masturbated, but by someone who actually isn’t human at all and has no idea how the human body works, but has had some of the primary functions summarized for them. This manifests primarily in a scene in which Dagmar, having nothing better to do with her time, pleasures herself with a gold chain — but not in the way you might guess, which would involve some degree of insertion or at least the application of pressure. No, instead she mostly just sort of lightly drags the chain across the top of her pubic hair, which is enough to send her into the throes of ecstasy and devour another five or six minutes of movie. Hey, everyone has their thing. It’s a rare accomplishment for a sex scene to reach the point where even a dedicated swinger and aficionado of perversion sighs and says, “You know, maybe we could just move on.”
If this seems needlessly and too graphically focused on the sexuality of the film, there’s a reason for that. Although The Sister of Ursula contains several murders, few of them elicit much response from anyone in the cast, and if they can’t be bothered to care, then why should the viewer? The Amalfi Coast is admittedly a pleasure seeker’s paradise, and a certain amount of laissez-faire is expected in matters. But even the most laid back den of hedonism seems like it might start to attract attention after a third murder victim turns up in one of its rooms. Sure, the hotel has a nice view, a pretty good floor show, and lots of prostitutes; but when those prostitutes keep getting murdered, surely that results in a few early check-outs. At the very least, one would think the police would do something more than show up every other murder and proclaim, “Well, these things happen.” Dagmar and Ursula must have gotten a really great rate on that room, because no amount of discovering horribly mutilated bodies can convince them to pack up. Even in the world of the giallo, where no one reacts to anything in the way an actual human would, the blasé attitude of everyone toward the piles of corpses borders on the ludicrous.
Speaking of ludicrous, given the genital nature of the violence inflicted on the film’s victims, one might expect it to be unsettling while it’s being unsavory. It never rises to that level, however, content to wallow about comfortably in its own absurd filth. The reveal of the killer is shocking only in that it turns out to be the most obvious suspect, and the one the film has been hinting at the entire time. It’s like expecting a curve ball only to have the pitcher throw it slow and right down the middle. And then there’s the reveal of murder weapon, which for most of the film is seen only as a shadow which becomes a little clearer with each killing until finally, the film whips it out proudly for all to marvel at. Rather than being shocking, however, it’s simply idiotic, and one can’t help but wonder exactly how you go about murdering someone with that particular implement.
Stefania D’Amario goes about the business of being the film’s lead with reasonable commitment. She’s not trying too hard, but it’s not a role that asks her to try hard. Her primary functions are to get naked and roll her eyes at what a nutcase her sister has become. She’s competent at doing both of these things, and toward the film’s finale she even gets to do a little acting, albeit acting of the “bug out your eyes and scream” variety. Barbara Magnolfi plays Ursula less a damaged, fragile woman and more as just a hateful, spiteful brat who, just because this film isn’t weird enough, also possesses the power of limited precognition. which she uses mostly to hiss at Filippo and Dagmar that Filippo is a scumbag who will end up killing Ursula. For his part int he whole sordid affair, Marc Porel as Filippo actually turns in a pretty good performance. Actually, no one in this movie is bad. It’s the movie itself that is bad. Most of them obviously have no idea what was going on, but that just makes them easy to relate to. The majority of them are there to be introduced during a meandering sex scene, then killed in the next scene. Oddly for a giallo, especially one this sleazy, most of the characters aren’t horrible human beings, with the possible exception of Ursula herself, and even she has a trauma that temper her foul mood.
Enzo Milioni was a director of no particular skill, and he enjoyed a career to match that skill. he circled the bottom of the barrel during a time in Italian exploitation filmmaking when the previous bottom of the barrel had drifted to the top. No one realized how good we had it in the early 1970s when the worst of the genre was still somewhat inventive. Milioni has nothing to offer as a writer or director, and one suspects based both on the thinness of the finished movie and the disengaged presence of actors who are trying to do their best with nothing, that the script for The Sister of Ursula ran no more than a couple pages and consisted mostly of “insert sex scene here.” During the decade he was active as a director, he only managed five films in an industry where some directors produced than number in a single year. His career as a writer was longer but not much more prolific and, like his stints as director, at best aspired to one day attain mediocrity. Even the cinematography by Vittorio Bernini is grubby. The Amalfi Coast is the sort of location that does most of the work for you. You just have to point your camera and get the proper exposure, and just as this film over-exposes during its sex scenes, so too is the travelogue footage spoiled by too much light, rendering the sky washed out and yellowish-white when it should be blue and beautiful. Maybe it was the weather. Bernini has some interesting ideas about how and where to place his camera, but for whatever reason, it never achieves the level of sophistication or style it should.
Other than marveling at the sheer stupidity of it all, there’s little to recommend in The Sister of Ursula. Well, OK, the music, composed by Mimi Uva (who, like most of the crew of this film, had no real career to speak of), is actually pretty good in that “cocktail lounge meets funk” way. Truly determined (or is it “demented”) fans of Eurocult cinema will find it easy if monotonous going, like having sex with a prostitute who can’t quite be bothered to pretend like she isn’t bored. It gets the job done, or at least a certain type of job, but there’s not much to recommend beyond that. If you are a fellow traveler in the world of the giallo film, especially its murkier, dirtier alleyways, then you might, like me, find The Sister of Ursula to be harmlessly tedious. It’s like watching a Luciano Ercoli film without that director’s flare for fashion and cinematography. For that matter, the whole affair is a bit like a Jess Franco film without that director’s flare. Contemplate that one on the Tree of Woe. Sex scenes, the Italian coast, outlandish murders — everything about The Sister of Ursula seems to operate under the directive of “Well, this should be good, but we’re going to mess it up.”