Monday, May 9, 2011

Dagmar's Hot Pants

Just to win a free pizza from a co-worker and because I love an Italian mystery, over the past week, I watched the following 21 giallo films:

Cold Eyes of Fear (Castellari)
*Deadly Sweet (Brass)
*La Residencia (Ibanez Serrador)
Slaughter Hotel (Di Leo)
Knife of Ice (Lenzi)
*The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (Bennati)
Black Belly of the Tarantula (Cavara)
*In the Folds of the Flesh (Bergonzelli)
The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Barilli)
*The Weekend Murders (Lupo)
*Delitto passionale (Mogherini)
A Quiet Place to Kill (Lenzi)
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Martino)
* Amer (Cattet and Forzani)
* Damned in Venice (Liberatore)
My Dear Killer (Valerii)
The Pyjama Girl Case (Mogherini)
The Sister of Ursula (Milioni)
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Argento)
Cat O' Nine Tails (Argento)
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Argento)

*first time viewing

Of the eight films I had never seen, I think only one, Delitto passionale, disappointed. The most impressive of that group was easily Amer followed closely by La Residencia. But the film I was most surprised by was 1978's Damned in Venice, a copycat of several occult and giallo movies made earlier in the decade such as Rosemary's Baby and Don't Look Now. It also had a few scenes that were clearly influenced by Fulci and a few original ideas of its own. It wasn't the best on the list by a long shot, but if this type of film is your thing, I'd definitely check it out.

Of the films I'd previously seen, some were old favorites like the Argento and Lenzi films, and some I hadn't seen in years or had only viewed once and felt the need to revisit. I forgot just how good The Perfume of the Lady in Black is, for example, and for those who loved Amer, I'd recommend checking this one out. Mimsy Farmer gives a stellar performance and the film is one of the best looking and most artistic of the genre. The most surprising of the previously viewed films, however, was one I saw just last year for the first time, The Sister of Ursula. I fully expected not to be shocked by the high level of sleaze on my second viewing, but Ursula somehow exceeded my expectations yet again and I found myself laughing out loud at the over-the-top sex scenes. It was likewise far from the best of the gialli, but it was also a surprisingly solid looking and well-written film for all of its sleaze.

Synopsis - Two sisters stay at a coastal resort hotel in Amalfi where a killer has begun stalking victims with an unusual weapon.

This ain't your daddy's giallo. Right out of the gate, just after the credits finish at the three minute mark, we get the all-important clothes-changing scene by Ursula's sister, Dagmar. Now I know, this isn't unusual in a giallo or a soft-core film, but what makes it strangely uncomfortable here is that Dagmar strips nude with her sister looking on and wearing an odd neutral look on her face. "Daggie" (as Ursula calls her) also has a habit of sleeping in the buff while sharing the hotel bed with her sister. Now there doesn't seem to be any apparent incest going on which somehow makes these scenes even stranger and more inexplicably creepy/disturbing. It was at this point, on my first viewing, I thought the director Enzo Milioni was going to substitute sleaziness for story, and there would be a series of soft-core vignettes placed in between lame filler scenes that tried to pass as a mystery. I was right and wrong. The sex scenes continued to come (no pun) faster and harder (OK, pun intended), but I was very surprised at the effort put into the story, cinematography and direction.

The real star of the film is the hotel that is situated on the Amalfi coast. Milioni takes full advantage of the set location with incredibly beautiful exterior shots. There are so many films that supposedly take place in exotic locations but let the scenery go to waste with just one or two establishing shots. Milioni shoots in the hotel, around it, over it, under it and everywhere in between often getting some real breathtaking shots of that gorgeous coast and cliffside into the movie. No one can accuse the filmmakers of The Sister of Ursula of phoning this one in. Milioni and cinematographer Vittorio Bernini had to have burned some calories finding locations and setting up shots at just the right time of day to get the nice aesthetic results they achieved. The sex scenes look relatively bland by comparison with the exception of one shot in a tower which does give it some atmosphere. I'm guessing this film did more damage than good to the resumes of Milioni and Bernini as it appears they both did limited work after Ursula. That's a shame, because it appears each has some skills if you look beyond the exploitation aspects of the movie.

The lead actors in the film are Barbara Magnolfi who played Olga in Suspiria, Stefania D'Amario who has done some nunsploitation, nazi-sploitation, the Fulci film, Zombi and Lenzi's, Nightmare City and Marc Porel from Don't Torture a Duckling and Seven Notes in Black. Magnolfi, who plays Ursula, is kind of a depressed emo character with possible clairvoyant powers. She does a fair job as the high-strung, buzz-killing, yet sensitive and ethereal younger sister. For being the titular character, Ursula's sister, Dagmar is a little underdeveloped outside of the nude scenes and the fact that Ursula believes she's a nympho ("You just like being shagged, you bitch!"). The focal character seems to be much more Ursula than Dagmar which caused a great deal of confusion on my initial viewing as I often got the two sisters identities switched. 

This is Ursula - not her sister

The story resembles a slasher in that an unknown killer is offing victims immediately after, or sometimes even during, the sex act. The story differs from a slasher by the type of weapon used which isn't a knife, ax, meat cleaver or even a harpoon but's a... you just have to watch the movie, OK?

There is a subplot involving Porel's awesomely arrogant Filippo ("Get in the car, we're going to get lunch and then make love, even if you don't want to!"), as well as the decadent hotel manager and a lounge singer with the fantastically cheesy name of Stella Shining. In addition, the hotel manager has a bi wife who has a partner named Jenny whom the manager seems not to be fond of judging by the Conan O'Brien-type stare down that occurs between them. That Milioni, who also wrote the screenplay, was able to weave all these characters together in a coherent plot that involves a drug ring, a serial killer, infidelity, a secret identity, psychological disturbance, possible clairvoyance and massive amounts of kinky sex is pretty impressive. The story, somewhat incredibly, all does make sense in the end and the movie works outside of the sex. Which doesn't mean I think the sex should have been edited or even toned down. It's what makes the movie unique. I can't think of another giallo that has pushed the envelope this far and has still come out watchable. The film isn't great, but it is far better than it should be, given all the seemingly disparate components that shouldn't blend well together and yet somehow work.

On the downside, the film lacks atmosphere which is mostly due to the mediocre music. It doesn't annoy, but it sure doesn't lend anything to the proceedings whether they be scary or sexual. The acting is likewise a little generic and seems very forced at times. Porel is easily the best actor involved and even has a little charisma, but most of the other actors were kind of like weak tea, they served their purpose but didn't add any spice which considering all the sex, is not a good thing. Speaking of which, of all the actors involved in love scenes, did I have to see the middle-aged, not-that-good-looking, hotel manager guy get it on ferociously? When I first watched the movie, I was still chuckling about how wildly inappropriate the sex scenes were several minutes after their occurrence and losing the plot points that followed.
On the other hand, it is a movie that can be enjoyed on purely a camp level with the actors occasionally emoting just a bit too much or being just a bit too ardent in the boudoir. And that scenery and hotel makes me want to book my next vacation in Amalfi, even if there is a sex killer on the loose with an unorthodox weapon. Overall, I think even non-giallo fans could get something out of The Sister of Ursula even if it is just laughs and titillation, but I think there's surprisingly more to the film than that.

Score 7/10

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