Friday, November 04, 2016

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Sister of Ursula

Hello, kiddies, and welcome to Uncle Neil’s film club. Now, can anyone answer this question: what’s the sleaziest giallo ever made?

What’s that? ‘The French Sex Murders’? Good choice, but I think we can find something sleazier.

‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’? Very good choice. Extra points for referencing a film that stars Edwige Fenech and Femi Benussi. But we can still hoist ourselves a few more rungs up the ladder of sleaze.

‘Amuck’, you say? With its slow-mo Rosalba Neri/Barbara Bouchet scene? Oh, well played. Well played indeed. But is it quite as sleazy as …

… drum roll, please …

… ‘The Sister of Ursula’? Let’s find out. But before we do, let’s consider the circumstances under which the film came to be made. It’s a far more interesting story than the tawdry narrative we’ll be deconstructing in a couple of paragraphs’ time.

First-time director Enzo Milioni had ambitions to make an art-house film starring Dirk Bogarde; his producer encouraged him to make something commercial, with the intention of securing financing for the Bogarde film on the back of it. Said project never came to fruition, and what we’re left with – the first of only five features Milioni would ever direct – is ‘The Sister of Ursula’, a piece of work whose own director admits is hack-work and which most of the cast look uncomfortable, if not outright embarrassed, to be a part of.

Let’s meet the cast and see what part they play in the whole sordid mess. We have the eponymous siblings Ursula (Barbara Magnolfi) and Dagmar Beyne (Stefania D’Amario), who as the film opens check into a coastal hotel run by the oleaginous Roberto Delleri (Vanni Materassi). Roberto’s wife Vanessa (Anna Zinnemann) actually owns the establishment and would rather Roberto were out of the way so she could take up permanent residence with her lover Jenny (Antiniska Nemour), while Roberto would rather Vanessa were out of the way so he could play hide the salami with improbably named nightclub singer Stella Shining (Yvonne Harlow). Meanwhile, man-pout specialist Filippo Andrei (Marc Porel) moons over Stella while pursuing his own ambiguous agenda.

Wending our way back to Ursula and Dagmar, they’re residing at Roberto’s hotel while they track down their estranged mother in order to make over to her a share of their late father’s estate. Beyne mère, it turns out, was a successful actress who left Beyne père for her career and the attention of numerous admirers. Quite why Ursula and Dagmar don’t establish contact with her via her agent is left unexplained.

Oh, and did I mention that Ursula has some kind of psychic gift that vacillates between precognition and telepathy depending on the requirements of the plot? Or that said gift is explained away by the hotel’s resident doctor (Giancarlo Zanetti) along the lines of “oh, something traumatic happened to her so it brought out the supernatural”?

For a film in which sod all happens apart from extended naked writhings, ‘The Sister of Ursula’ sure is heavy on backstory!

What’s that? You would like to hear more of these naked writhings of which I speak? Are you sure? Okay. Let us take as our text the old adage that if a movie features nudity with its first five minutes, it isn’t a skin flick. Because, heaven help us, even pornography has the decency to build up to the old in-out-in-out. Milioni manages three and a half minutes before Ursula and Dagmar get up to their hotel room and the latter casually disrobes. Hereafter, at intervals of roughly ten minutes, nubile subsidiary characters get nekkid and roll around on top of each other for a while, after which the female participant is brutally murdered.

Ladies and gentlemen, ‘The Sister of Ursula’.

The only surprise is that neither of the titular siblings get an honest-to-God sex scene. Dagmar almost instigates a relationship with Filippo, but then he goes chasing after Stella so Dagmar consoles herself by masturbating with a chunky necklace (which isn’t a sentence I’d ever imagined myself typing, but hey that’s gialli for you); elsewhere, she simply sashays naked around the hotel room. Barbara Magnolfi as Ursula must have had a one boob only clause in the contract because she occasionally comes awake from a nightmare only for one strap of her nightdress to slide off and one … well, you get the picture. Everyone else in the cast lets it all hang out (there’s even a glimpse of semi-tumescence from one of the gentlemen), even though none of them seem to be enjoying the proceedings in the slightest. Particularly the two teenage runaways who buy the farm after they get turned away from the hotel and seek shelter instead in a strange old folly decorated with weird sculptures: their make-out session is noted by him trying to get to the end of the scene as quickly as possible before his mum finds out what kind of film he’s making and her responding as if his technique were a guaranteed cure for insomnia. Shame really, as they’re rudely interrupted soon enough.

So. Yeah. Erm. What was I saying about Ursula having nightmares? Yes, that was it: Ursula has nightmares about her deceased father and intimates to Dagmar that she keeps seeing his ghost. None of this adds up to much narratively so in order to pad things out Filippo plods around the resort town acting suspiciously while Roberto and Vanessa have dramatic moments as if they were in a telenovela and Stella turns out to be something more than the world’s worst nightclub singer. Meanwhile a certain decorative wood carving is put to an improper use.

Ladies and gentlemen, ‘The Sister of Ursula’.

But let’s be honest, Milioni and his creative team are so obsessed with phallocentricity that even the hotel’s verandah is decked out with miniature cannons angled so rampantly that you’d think they were on the verge of spunking up over the coastline. (Didn’t imagine myself typing that sentence either.)

Is it the sleaziest giallo ever made? Quite possibly. Is it one of the worst? Indubitably? This is a film in which everyone involved gave up trying about thirty seconds before Milioni called “action” on the first day of shooting. This is a film where the killer’s eyes are always in a penumbra of shadow even when it’s broad fucking daylight. This is a film where they pull that old routine where the victim looks up startled, breathes a sigh of relief as she mutters “oh, it’s you”, then screams her lungs out as she realises that she is in danger after all … only for you to realise as the end credits roll that at no fucking previous fucking point in the fucking proceedings did she ever fucking meet the killer. This is a film in which Magnolfi – a striking presence in Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ – tries to play Ursula as moody and troubled but just ends up with film-long resting bitch face.

This is a film whose last ten minutes aren’t so much a narrative train-wreck as an out-and-out holocaust against the very concept of rail travel. A film whose producers tried to claim that the actress who played Stella Shining – Stella (as in Latin for star) fucking Shining, for fuck’s sake – was the granddaughter of Jean Harlow. Actually, given the denouement the script tries to sell the audience, that particular chunk of BS is credible plus VAT by comparison!

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