There are a number of reasons why the gialli started to dwindle during the late 1970s. Television and the home video craze largely contributed to the marginalization of Italy's film market, isolating art house and genre films to brief theatrical runs (if that), and then a jump to the boob tube. As Italy's once vibrant film scene faded into the 1980s, filmmakers were left to compete for attention — especially once the era of American slashers started to take root with John Carpenter's Halloween. Graphic sex and violence was relatively cheap and easy to produce, but the gialli had to up the ante.
Enzo Milioni's 1978 film The Sister of Ursula goes for broke — and it's amusing in its absurdity, albeit lacking in most areas. There's full-frontal nudity within the first three minutes of the movie. The sex is plentiful and ultra sleazy — similar to the notorious Giallo a Venezia. (An interview on the recent Severin Films Blu-ray reveals more about the unauthorized XXX-rated version of Ursula.)
The Austrian Beyne sisters, Ursula (Suspiria's Barbara Magnolfi) and Dagmar (Zombie's Stefania D'Amario), search for their estranged mother and wind up at a seaside hotel. The girls are haunted by a troubled family life and tragic accident, but Ursula is particularly fragile. She delivers nihilistic monologues, talks to ghosts, senses danger — even predicting her own death — and remains distant and lost in her own world. The elegant, rustic location is ripe with suspects for a series of pervy murders that take place in the area. The kinky killer likes to watch sexually adventurous women in bed. His weapon of choice is hilariously perverse.
The hotel's sleazy manager (Vanni Materassi) is screwing everyone and everything — except his wife, much to his chagrin, who is a swinging lesbian. The resident lounge singer (Yvonne Harlow) croons the same sultry tune every evening to her fans (Mimì Uva's "Eyes"), but lives a scandalous private life as a drug mule for the local heroin addict, Filippo, played by giallo regular Marc Porel. Sadly, the actor was struggling with a real-life addiction at the time. Big sis Dagmar spends most of her time lusting after Filippo and worrying about Ursula. The true identity of the killer is poorly disguised, but the payoff is bizarre and worth the wait.
The film makes fantastic use of the gorgeous Amalfi Coast setting, treating us to some unusual murder set-pieces, including mysterious catacombs. Milioni borrows supernatural tropes from various gialli, themes later perfected in Argento's 1985 film Phenomena. One is left wondering if a poster of Donald Duck that appears above one of the victim's beds is a nod to Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling. It's that kind of odd touch that gives The Sister of Ursula a slight edge. Milioni had visions of profiting off Ursula to make a "legit" film pegged to English actor Dirk Bogarde. That project never panned out, but Ursula is an outrageous debut with a substantial side of sleaze.