Review: The Sister of Ursula, aka La sorella di Ursula (dir. Enzo Milioni, 1978)

The Sister of Ursula

The Sister of Ursula (La sorella di Ursula)
Italy, 1978
Director/writer: Enzo Milioni

Review by N Emmett.

While staying at a luxurious Naples hotel with her sister, Ursula (Barbara Magnolfi) has visions of the other guests being brutally murdered. It turns out that these killings are actually taking place, and the hotel manager is covering them up so as not to harm his business. Will any of the guests survive long enough to expose the killer?

It is hard to pretend that The Sister of Ursula is a particularly well-written film. Its loose plot is assembled from giallo conventions, its characters are one-dimensional and its twist ending is utterly predictable. And yet, it has earned itself a place in giallo history. Why? Because of the sex.

Eroticism had long been a part of the genre, but the regular scenes of licking and fingering that occur in this film walk a thin line between soft and hard porn. In an interview originally made for the Severin release of the film and included on this Shameless DVD, writer-director Enzo Milioni states that at the time of the film’s release in 1978, “the audience was not used to seeing so many naked women.”

The sheer amount of sex on show throughout the film soon becomes a laughing matter – particularly    with the exact same piece of porno-flick background music kicking off just about every time someone removes their trousers.

ursu1In all fairness, Milioni does not rely solely on sex: he adds plenty of quirky touches, one of the most notable being the film’s recurring motif of statues. In one scene, Ursula converses with a statue of Christ. Elsewhere, the characters visit a catacomb-like area with suits of armour positioned along the wall like guardsmen. One of the murder scenes climaxes on a brief shot of a wooden head, as though the carved image was watching the crime.

This implied voyeurism runs from statues to animals. One of the film’s exterior sequences includes a curious moment when the camera lingers on a dog leaning out a window, looking down on the proceedings with a strange sense of solemnity. After this the characters climb into a car and drive off; as they do so, the camera pans to show the head of a carriage-horse that calmly watches the vehicle depart.

ursu4The voyeuristic theme reaches its height with the repeated shots of the killer’s eyes, which are spotlit against an otherwise black background. This makes no sense in literal terms – other shots in the same scene reveal the room to be brightly lit, and the other characters can see the murderer’s face clearly – and only works when viewed as a stylistic device.

Picking out funky little details such as this, however, cannot distract us from the elephant in the room. In amping up the sex, Milioni also inflates the misogyny that is part of the giallo tradition. Not all of the film’s murder victims are female, but most of them are – and the multiple shots of dead women bleeding from their ruptured pelvic regions require little comment.

Giallo films – like their diluted American brethren, slashers – often combine sex with death in a manner that implies that the murders are on some level a punishment for sexuality, particularly female sexuality. The Sister of Ursula is no exception. We are invited to spend time ursu3looking in on the decadent lifestyles of the characters: as well as sleeping around, the denizens of the lush hotel take drugs and indulge in all forms of materialism; sometimes these aspects blur in and out of each other, as when a woman pleasures herself by rubbing a gold necklace against her nether regions.

And then, one by one, the characters suffer fatal punishments for this life of excess.

The killer is – until the very end of the film – portrayed not as a complete figure but as a series of fragments: the inexplicably spot-lit eyes, the gloved hands and, at certain points, the shadow of an erect penis. This abstraction makes the character come across less as a human and more as a quasi-supernatural entity – an agent of fate, rather than a perverted murderer. The bogeyman whose role in existence is to punish naughty children.

ursu2Notably, the film’s male lead (played by Marc Porel) is given some less than clean-cut attributes: he takes heroin and shows an unhealthy interest in the sex life of a woman singer. And yet, far from being murdered, he becomes a dashing hero towards the end of the story. What is it that exempts him from the film’s implied system of punishment? Could it be his gender…?

But before we dismiss The Sister of Ursula outright as misogynistic sleaze, let us consider a comment made by Milioni in the DVD interview: “It was acclaimed by women…. women used to love it.”