Enzo Milioni, 1978
Starring: Barbara Magnolfi, Stefania D’Amario, Marc Porel
"Love and horror slip over you without leaving a trace."
Dagmar and her troubled younger sister, Ursula, are traveling 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, his over-sexed wife who wants a divorce, a sultry nightclub singer, and her drug-addicted boyfriend, who also seems to be in love with Dagmar.
This later-period giallo from director Enzo Milioni is similar to other sleazy, sexually-explicit films from this period like Pensione paura, Giallo a Venezia, The Killer Must Kill Again, and The Pyjama Girl Case. This blend of sex and death is particularly graphic and includes straight and lesbian sex scenes, masturbation with a gold chain, oral sex, voyeurism, and partner swapping — more sex and nudity than is included in your average giallo, including a graphic, apparently hardcore moment of ass eating. 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. I can’t decide if the film is flagrantly misogynistic or if it’s making fun of the sort of anti-sex, anti-women’s pleasure attitude that obsesses the killer.
This flawed but entertaining film has a murky plot that wanders in a number of directions. The two sisters’ motivations are unclear. 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?). 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.
SPOILERS: It’s not that difficult to figure out the identity of the killer and — amazingly — the murder weapon is a giant wooden dildo (statue?) with a bearded face carved on the end. This film has odd similarities to Pensione paura, in the sense that both films are set at a hotel teeming with sexually frustrated guests and the killer is a young girl who disguises herself as her father… though admittedly the protagonist of Pensione paura doesn’t fuck anyone to death with an oversized wooden dildo. Ursula’s behavior is difficult to understand, as she alternates between seeming mentally ill and just stuck in a phase of juvenile brattiness. But her tirades about leaving the hotel and her criticisms of the sexually promiscuous guests (and her own mother) pretty much gives it all away.
One of the film’s more bizarre subplots involves Ursula claiming to be psychic. In a hilarious scene, she has yet another fit and collapses and Dagmar for the hotel’s doctor. 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. The film suffers from too many of these different threads: 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 Andrei. 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 nightclub singer’s boyfriend with a secret drug addiction. He is shown shooting up on camera, but it’s later explained that he’s a narcotics detective on the trail of a drug smugglers. Sadly, this plot element was eerily close to Porel’s own life. He and actress Barbara Magnolfi (Suspiria) were newly weds during filmmaking and he had a fascinating career that included work on Fulci’s The Psychic, Ruggero Deodato's Live like a Cop, Die like a Man, and Luchino Visconti's The Innocent. But he also had an on-going drug problem and died from a drug-related illness in 1983, which was also when Magnolfi essentially retired.
The Sister of Ursula is well-worth seeking out and is fortunately available on DVD. There’s a likable lead performance from Stefania D’Amario (Zombie, Nightmare City) and some nice side performances, including one by Vanni Materassi (The Leopard) as Roberto, the hotel manager. He inadvertently provides some comic relief, as Roberto reacts hilariously to the deaths — and he discovers a few of the bodies himself — by appearing completely nonplussed and unaffected. The Amalfi coast provides a beautiful seaside setting director Milioni makes the most of his set pieces, including abandoned areas of the hotel, which complement the licentious and often deadly goings on in the ornate hotel. The sexually squeamish will probably want to avoid this one, but it’s really a lot of fun.