While I love the early days of the genre, I find myself perhaps most excited by the later years of giallo films, after the boom from 1971-1975 had passed. These later films fascinate me, not in terms of how they adhere to the giallo formula, but in how they manipulate or pervert it. And in a literal sense, many of them are quite perverted, upping in the ante from Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Sergio Martino by leaps and bounds—often to such an extreme extent that I sometimes wonder if some of these later films can properly be described as gialli at all. While the established genre masters seemed intent on blending dazzling style with elaborate plots, the directors of these later films—such as The Sister of Ursula’s Enzo Miloni, here with his directorial debut—seemed more concerned with burning your eyeballs and putting hair on your chest.
As such, I don’t feel bad revealing certain spoilers about The Sister of Ursula, as the film makes it pretty obvious that the identity of the murderer is both abundantly clear and not all important in the grand scheme of things. This later giallo is similar to other sleazy, sexually-explicit films from this period like Massimo Dallamano’s “School Girls in Perl” trilogy, The Killer Must Kill Again (1975), Pensione paura (1977), The Pyjama Girl Case (1977), and Giallo a Venezia (1979), which I wrote about yesterday, among others. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to explore more of them this Gialloween season, but I find a strange sort of purity in their collective vileness. To some degree all foreshadow their lord and master, Fulci’s New York Ripper (1982), and these films from roughly 1975 to 1979 represent a collection of human depravity that has more akin to rough exploitation cinema than it does with the artful, sexy murder mysteries Bava launched with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963).
The blend of sex and death present in The Sister of Ursula is particularly graphic and includes straight and lesbian sex scenes, masturbation with a gold chain, oral sex, voyeurism, and partner swapping—far, far more sex and nudity than is included in your average giallo, including a graphic, apparently hardcore moment of ass eating (though this could be down to the version I watched; there is a cut out there that has a few hardcore inserts peppered in, not that The Sister of Ursula needs them…). And I hate wearing clothes as much as the next person, but the characters in The Sister of Ursula could best be described as defiantly naked, naked for no reason whatsoever and whenever possible. It would be easy to interpret the film as flagrantly misogynistic—a criticism also lobbed at the far tamer excesses of Argento—though I can’t help but read it as an overblown parody of the sort of anti-sex, anti-women’s pleasure attitude that obsesses the killer. It is simply too absurd and surreal at times for me accept that it’s a serious attack on sexual women, or female promiscuity.
The film follows Dagmar (Stefania D’Amario of Zombie and Nightmare CIty) and her troubled younger sister, Ursula (Suspiria’s hissing Barbara Magnolfi), as they travel through Italy in search of their estranged mother. Their father recently passed away and left them his considerable estate. Ursula believes she has psychic powers and thinks that some doom will befall them at a seaside hotel Dagmar has settled on. Soon enough, bodies begin to pile up around the picturesque resort, which is packed with suspects including the smarmy hotel manager (Vanni Materassi), his over-sexed wife who wants a divorce, a sultry nightclub singer (Yvonne Harlow), and her drug-addicted boyfriend (The Psychic’s Marc Porel), who also seems to be in love with Dagmar.
This flawed but entertaining film has a murky plot that wanders in a number of directions. The two sisters’ motivations are unclear and it’s difficult to really sympathetize—or like—either character. Though they discuss being raised in boarding school and not being close with either of their parents, they determinedly search for their absent mother (presumably to share the inheritance with her, though no giallo character has ever, under any circumstances, wanted to share a fortune with another character). Ursula claims to be very close with their father, though Dagmar’a dialogue repeatedly disputes this, and Ursula insists that he is not dead, but remains a close physical presence. Dagmar later reveals that he killed himself after years of impotency and his actress wife leaving him at the height of her fame.
As I mentioned, it’s not that difficult to figure out the identity of the killer, though all I’ll tell you is that like so many classic giallo films, it’s a woman disguising herself as a male killer. But what you probably won’t see coming—amazingly—the murder weapon is a giant wooden dildo with a bearded face carved on the end. It’s as though Miloni glimsed the wooden Jesus dildo used by furiously masturbating nuns in Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls, though that film was also released in 1978, and thought, “I can and will do better.” Wooden dildos were obviously very popular in 1978, but I have to admit that I’m glad I wasn’t alive then to masturbate.
Speaking of female sexuality and wanton perversion, The Sister of Ursula has some odd similarities to the previous year’s Pensione paura, in the sense that both films are set at a hotel teeming with sexually frustrated guests and the killer—again, I’m not going to ruin it for you totally—follows the same sort of disguise and reveal scenario. Though admittedly the protagonist of Pensione paura doesn’t fuck anyone to death with an oversized wooden dildo. While female madness, perhaps as a result of trauma, is a major theme in Pensione paura, it is more complicated, or perhaps more ineptly executed, in The Sister of Ursula. One of the film’s more bizarre subplots involves Ursula claiming to be psychic. In a hilarious scene, she has one of many fits and collapses, requiring Dagmar to call the hotel doctor (Giancarlo Zanetti). He examines Ursula and informs Dagmar that childhood trauma frequently leaves young adults with psychic sensitivity and unexplained powers (!). Sadly, this element is not further explored, but imagine if we lived in a world where Phenomena was directed by Joe D’Amato, because I’d like to believe that’s what the end result would have been. Alas, we don’t deserve such a world.
The Sister of Ursula is beloved to me because of its flaws and its problems. The film suffers from too many of these different threads never unraveling: a search for missing parents, a troubled girl with psychic powers, a series of tangled sexual relationships, a murderer on the loose, and a drug smuggling ring at the hotel. The latter takes form in actor Marc Porel’s character Filippo. The film presents him—in typical giallo fashion—as both a love interest and as a potential killer, but doesn’t satisfyingly develop either of these and is criminally underused. He’s introduced as the boyfriend of a zany nightclub singer. He’s quickly revealed to have a secret drug addiction and is shown shooting up on camera, but it’s later explained that he’s a narcotics detective on the trail of drug smugglers—because the film is just that committed to nonsensical plot twists. Sadly, this element was eerily close to Porel’s own life. He and Magnolfi were real-life newly weds during filmmaking, but Porel passed a few years later in 1983 from a drug-related illness. Magnolfi essentially retired, cutting two potentially fascinating careers tragically short.
The Sister of Ursula might not be for everyone—though who doesn’t want a few death-by-dildo sequences to mix up the conventional horror movie murder weapon? There’s some dialogue that must be heard to be believed, such as when Ursula has a vision that Filippo will ultimately be her killer, and asks Dagmar how she could possibly love the man who will kill her sister. These surreal plot elements and the setting of an isolated hotel on the beautiful Amalfi coast give the film a sense that it is set in a place of reality and almost out of time. Like Zulawski’s Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989), with which it has some weird parallels, it’s a feverish cocktail of psychic powers, the return of repressed childhood trauma, Freudian nightmares, absent parents, drugs, and violence. And let’s not forget the defiant nudity.