THE SISTER OF URSULA
Color, 1978, 94 mins. 53 secs.
Directed by Enzo Milioni
Starring Barbara Magnolfi, Stefania D'Amario, Marc Porel, Anna Zinnemann
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Le Chat Qui Fume (Blu-ray) (France R0 HD), X-Rated Kult (Blu-ray) (Germany R0 HD), Severin Films (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
THE KILLER IS STILL AMONG US
Color,1986, 83 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Camillo Teti
Starring Mariangela D'Abbraccio, Giovanni Visentin, Riccardo Parisio Perrotti, Luigi Mezzanotte
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
ARABELLA: BLACK ANGEL
Color, 1989, 89 mins. 8 secs.
Directed by Stelvio Massi
Starring Tinì Cansino, Francesco Casale, Valentina Visconti, Rena Niehas, Evelyn Stewart
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)
By the late 1970s, the giallo craze in Italy had started to lose some of its appeal thanks to increasingly sleazy competitive offerings involving nuns, Nazis, and other taboo-bashing staples. Filmmakers eager to stay viable either hopped over into flat-out supernatural waters (e.g., Dario Argento and Mario Bava) or increased their chances of popularity by injecting their mysteries with heavy doses of kinkiness and sleaze. That trend more or less held until the end of the '80s when the Italian film industry virtually cratered, and now three of the scuzziest offerings from that era have been joined together for Vinegar Syndrome's Forgotten Gialli: Volume 4, easily the least reputable of the series so far and an essential purchase for any fan of European sleaze
The first film here chronologically is also the most familiar of the bunch, relatively speaking: 1978's The Sister of Ursula, an utterly batty shocker that should have earned a hefty cult following by now along with its fellow trashy brethren like Strip Nude for Your Killer and Red Rings of Fear, though perhaps the unavailability of an English language track may account for its relative obscurity. Two sisters, jittery Ursula (Magnolfi, best remembered as the scene-stealing catty Olga in Suspiria) and clothing-averse Dagmar (Nightmare City's D'Amario), arrive at an oceanside resort where they spend their time watching a ridiculous nightclub act by the slutty Stella Shining (Zinnemann) and hobnobbing with her handsome junkie pal (The Psychic's Porel). Meanwhile a sadistic killer is stalking the grounds and killing women of loose morals with a giant wooden dildo. Yes, that's right, a dildo. First a hooker gets attacked in her room after trysting with a client, and then another couple is attacked after copulating in the cellar when they can't get a hotel room. Even stranger, Ursula experiences premonitions of these slayings and feels they're related to her own traumatic family experiences. Who's responsible, and can they be stopped before one of the sisters is next?
As a mystery The Sister of Ursula is really no great shakes, nor does it try to be. The killer's identity should be patently obvious, and first-time filmmaker Enzo Milioni (who assistant-directed the great Mad Dog Killer the previous year) seems far more concerned with photographing his gorgeous cast and locations and delivering humid, close-to-hardcore sex scenes. The phallus-inflicted violence is mostly off-camera, but enough aftermath is depicted to induce viewing squirming. Far more amusing is the over-the-top lounge music score by the obscure Mimi Uva, who shamelessly piles on the breathless vocals and sub-Morricone suspense strings.
A beautiful and extremely magnetic actress who never really received her due, Magnolfi carries most of the dramatic weight of the film (and barely shows any skin in the process) in a rare leading role, while Porel, an experienced actor from films like Luchino Visconti's The Innocent, Lucio Fulci's The Psychic, and Ruggero Deodato's Live like a Cop, Die like a Man, fills in what amounts to a glorified supporting role.
Certainly not a likely candidate for a first-rate American DVD release, The Sister of Ursula got its first respectable video presentation courtesy of Severin's DVD release. The opening titles suffer from erratic contrast levels and some visible damage, but the rest of the film looks just fine and easily blows away any of the murky-looking copies trickling quietly through the gray market for the past couple of decades. The optional English subtitles are also commendable; most of the actors' lip movements indicate that, per usual Italian filmmaking custom at the time, the major performers were speaking English during filming, though no English track was apparently ever prepared.
The biggest extra here is "The Father of Ursula," a 36m46s interview with director Milioni, and as one might expect with a film this juicy, it's a fascinating experience and highly recommended for providing some context for this truly bizarre film. He talks about how he got into the business, this film's origins as a bet and its unlikely connection to Dirk Bogarde, his friendship with the married lead actors, the drug tragedy, and of course the infamous murder weapon, which he still owns and proudly displays on camera! Incredible stuff, it's also quite stylishly mounted and ranks as one of Severin's best featurettes to date. The only other extra is the incredibly salacious theatrical trailer, which packs about as much nudity as possible into three and a half minutes.
The first Blu-rays of The Sister of Ursula, neither English-friendly, turned up in France from Le Chat Qui Fume and in Germany from X-Rated Kult. The HD transfer here looked fine but was zoomed in a bit, resulting in some uncomfortable compositions here and there with actors' heads scraping the top of the frame. The German disc features the Severin interview with Milioni, an interview with Gerd Naumann and Bodo Traber about the German version of the film, and a German commentary by Naumann. The French disc contains the Milioni interview (as "Ursula C'est Moi"), a French-language Magnolfi interview called "Io Sono Ursula" (23m27s), "3 Gialli" (6m33s) with Philippe Chouvel, Italian trailer, and bonus trailers for Don't Torture the Duckling, Tropic of Cancer, and Bloodstained Shadow. The Vinegar Syndrome disc is touted as a new 4K restoration from the negative and definitely delivers with the best presentation of the film to date. The framing is opened back up and looks more satisfying here, while detail and color are excellent throughout. This version also reinstates the more logical day for night color timing of a handful of nocturnal scenes, such as a candlelit erotic encounter that seemed to be taking place in broad daylight on past releases. The Italian DTS-HD MA 2.0 track (with optional yellow English subtitles) also sounds very good. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides a new audio commentary in which she talks extensively about late '70s gialli, gender politics, and the backgrounds of both Magnolfi and Porel. There are quite a few very long silent gaps in here, so be prepared to fast forward a lot. Also included are the archival Milioni interview and the Italian trailer.
Then we jump ahead to 1986 with The Killer Is Still Among Us (originally L'assassino è ancora tra noi), a particularly nasty offering that throws in some questionable true crime elements. Incredibly, this was one of two gialli that year inspired by the long-running serial killer known as the Monster of Florence, now presumed to be multiple perpetrators operating as a kind of murder gang. Somewhat similar to the Zodiac killings and never officially resolved despite a pair of arrests, the crimes captured the darker side of the Italian public's imaginations with a string of slayings of couples in public places, with the women frequently mutilated and taunting messages sent to the police. The other film based on the same crimes, Night Ripper (a.k.a. The Monster of Florence), was already fairly grisly, but this one vaults up to an entirely different level with two sequences in particular standing out for their graphic depictions of the killer's real-life modus operandi.
When a man and woman are brutally slain while trying to have some intimate time alone at night in a car, criminology student Christiana (D'Abbraccio) notes the strong similarity to a serial killer whose ammunition seems very similar to an identical crime back in 1974. The fact that she's currently writing her dissertation on that double murder gives her the impetus to do more research, which involves boyfriend forensic surgeon Alex (Vistenin) and puts her in the path of the killer who calls her growling things like "Just drop it." Her investigation leads her down some strange and dark paths involving a secret voyeurism society congregating at a place called The Devil's Tavern, the world's creepiest gynecologist, and eventually a turn to the supernatural with a seance attempting to reveal the murderer's identity. Of course, the brutal killings themselves are far from over.
Basing a giallo on true events was a rare but not unprecedented occurrence in Italy, with the most prominent predecessor probably being The Pyjama Girl Case. Shot very cheaply and quickly in an attempt to beat the other Monster film into theaters, it's an uneven but strangely compelling film that gets a lot of mileage out of its resourceful main character and some unsettling turns, particularly a highly memorable and ingeniously gimmicky final scene stuck somewhere between Zodiac and Drive-In Massacre. It's an audacious little gambit that's ticked off more than a few viewers over the years, but there's no question that it sets the film apart from any other giallo out there (or just about anything else). Interestingly, the film as a whole doesn't wallow in explicit nudity and violence; the shocking bits are doled out sparingly but pack a punch when they hit as the camera goes to far more explicit areas than you'd normally expect. If you have a weak stomach, be prepared.
Impossible to see since the '80s in anything better than a dupey bootleg with fan subtitles, The Killer Is Still Among Us is a logical entry here as a giallo that truly has been forgotten outside of real die-hard fanatics. The new 4K scan from the original camera negative looks excellent again, retaining the original grainy look but boasting rich colors and revealing far more detail in those plentiful dark scenes than we've ever been able to make out before. The Italian DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track is also immaculate and features optional English subtitles. The big extra here is a new audio commentary by Rachael Nisbet, and she really dives into this one with a scholarly zeal that makes for a very rewarding listen. She goes in depth about the real crimes, the competing movies, the role of forensics in Italian thrillers, the banning of this film in Florence, the state of '80s gialli, and the backgrounds of the participants including first-time director Camillo Teti (who went on to the action trash favorites Brothers in War and Cobra Mission 2 but will live on in infamy for one of the worst animated films of all time, Titanic: The Legend Goes On...). The subtitled Italian trailer is also included.
Finally we get to 1989's Arabella: Black Angel (or Arabella l'angelo nero), which became something of a notorious gray market title on the VHS circuit in the early '90s among folks broadening their giallo horizons. Imagine a late '80s thriller directed by Tinto Brass and that's pretty much what you get here with a nudity-laden chunk of trashy depravity that also paves the way for where the giallo would be heading in the following decades. Prior to this Blu-ray release, the best version out there was a Japanese VHS release from Shochiku that optically censored all of the frontal nudity (which is not only considerable but actually pivotal to the plot), which led to a composite version making the rounds with the nude scenes slotted in from a much dupier Italian source. Now we finally have it uncensored in pristine quality, something that will make any seasoned Euro-smut collector shed a little tear in gratitude. This also marked the second foray into the giallo for poliziotteschi director Stelvio Massi (after 1974's graphic Five Women for the Killer), here lurking behind the name "Max Steel" and doling out kinky twists aplenty.
Though married to the wheelchair-bound novelist Francesco (The Voyeur's Casale), the sexually insatiable Arabella (Cansino) gets her kicks sampling the many offerings around Rome. One night she heads out to a pansexual orgy at an abandoned building out in the countryside, where her activities are photographed including some strange sexual assault role playing. Accusing her of prostitution, a vice squad cop handcuffs her to a car during the aftermath and rapes her, again all caught on film. We soon find out her husband's paralysis was caused on their wedding day when she was servicing him while he was driving, though that doesn't seem to bother her mother-in-law (giallo veteran Stewart) who lives with them. The following afternoon, the rapist cop shows up with the purse she dropped at the scene, so naturally she lures him to an outdoor shed where she fatally whacks him over the head with a mallet -- in front of Francesco's disbelieving eyes. She confesses all, admitting she's like the promiscuous heroine of his first novel, Black Angel, a development that actually turns him on and leads to new literary inspiration. However, her continuing sexual adventures take a dark turn when her lovers start turning up murdered and castrated. Is Arabella on a killing streak, or could there be another motive at work?
Loaded with softcore sex scenes and that slick yet seedy atmosphere familiar from countless late '80s Italian films, Arabella was briefly ushered into Italian theaters (with the gialli having virtually zero pull at the box office by then) before mostly finding its audience on home video where its unabashed wallowing was more at home. As usual it's a feast of red herrings and improbabilities galore, with oddballs characters including an investigating police detective named Gina (Visconti) whose lesbianism is, typically for the era, an automatic red flag that she could also be a suspect. Better known as an Italian centerfold model (including multiple gigs for Playmen), Cansino is certainly photogenic enough and appropriate for a role that doesn't require her to stretch much dramatically beyond what would normally be required in a Joe D'Amato softcore film. In short, it's fun, it's trashy, and it's a wild ride that can still raise an eyebrow or two among the uninitiated.
For its first legit appearance on home video in decades, Arabella looks excellent here on Blu-ray with a fresh 4K scan from the negative presented unmatted at 1.33:1. Compositionally that looks fine, though can also zoom it to 1.78:1 without losing anything either. The film was shot without live sound and is presented with a DTS-HD MA Italian 2.0 mono track with optional English subtitles; the dialogue often doesn't match the lip movements, but that's hardly uncommon. The English dub is also included as a lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 track, sounding a lot thinner but a welcome addition since it gives the characters different names (Arabella becomes "Deborah," Francesco is now "Frank," etc.). Heller-Nicholas returns for an audio essay (18m24s) that walks through the major events of the plot while touching on the troubling definitions of nymphomania, common traits with Massi's other giallo, and the use of the male and female gaze here. Also included are the opening and closing titles for the English version, bearing the title Black Angel.
THE SISTER OF URSULA
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray)
Le Chat Qui Fume (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on January 25, 2022.