MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN (1960)
A 19th-century professor of fine arts and unlicensed surgeon's ill daughter receives blood transfusions from kidnapped female victims who posthumously become macabre art.
A sumptuous feast for the eyes, Mill of the Stone Women was a milestone in horror. In many ways it’s a seminal piece of work, but one with predecessors it borrowed from to situate it firmly within the Gothic genre whilst leaving a legacy in many of its own successors. Considering its now legendary stature, it’s been unforgivably neglected since premiering in various edits during the early-1960s. So much so that, despite coming across many mentions of it, this beautifully restored 2K scan (taken from the original camera negatives by Arrow Films) was my first opportunity to view the unadulterated and definitive cut.
I adore the aesthetics of Hammer’s Gothic offerings, Roger Corman’s lusciously lurid Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, and the stylish cinema of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. Mill of the Stone Women can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of these and comes across as a dream combination of the three. If I didn’t know Giorgio Ferroni was the director, I may well have assumed it to be a Bava as there are strong parallels with his The Mask of Satan (1960), which he was filming at the same studios at the same time, and with themes he revisits in The Whip and the Body (1963) and Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966). Some film historians believe that Bava did indeed have an uncredited hand in directing some scenes, and I’d concur that many of his tell-tale trademarks are present in the shadowy textures and uses of distinctive red and green lighting gels.
Giorgio Ferroni isn’t known as a horror director and only made two movies in this genre. Mill of the Stone Women was his first foray, though it was his 15th feature, also having the distinction of being the first straight-up Italian horror made in colour. It was a big box office hit in Italy. To put it in perspective, it outperformed every one of Bava’s horror movies in the domestic market, except Kill, Baby…Kill! So, it’s surprising that Ferroni’s only return to the genre was 12 years, and 14 films, later with Night of the Devils (1972). The bulk of his output was shared between documentary, peplum, and Spaghetti Westerns.
Ferroni is said to have loved the German Expressionist films he saw early in his career, such as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece Vampyre (1932), with which Mill of the Stone Women strongly resonates throughout, and Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), which shares thematic and stylistic similarities. As with Waxworks, Mill of the Stone Women begins with the arrival of an author at a creepy setting to write about a selection of waxwork figures modelled on infamous historical persons. In Waxworks, they were all male villains, but this time they’re exclusively female, and for the most part, maligned by historical bias.
Hans (Pierre Brice) arrives at the studios of the renowned sculptor and university Professor Gregorius Wahl (Herbert A.E Böhme), whose great grandfather made a macabre carousel featuring a parade of women, predominantly depicted in their moment of death. To mark its centenary, Hans intends to write a monograph on the mechanised tableau housed within a foreboding windmill, adapted so that its great creaking cogs drive the parade of uncanny effigies. Hans will see that Professor Wahl hasn’t simply been maintaining his ancestor’s masterpiece, he’s been regularly adding to it, creating new female figures to showcase his sculpting skills…
On entering, Hans is immediately disconcerted by a small nervous dog that appears, attracting his attention to a set of heavy brocade curtains that part to allow him a tantalising glimpse of a beautiful but pained woman’s face. Before he can investigate further, he’s greeted by the sombre chatelain (Olga Solbelli), a familiar fixture of Italian Gothic castles and, so it seems, windmills. She ushers him quickly away despite the sound of anguished moaning from behind the curtains that could emanate from either dog or woman, maybe both.
We later learn that the young beauty is Wahl’s daughter, Elfi (Scilla Gabel), who, at least at first, appears to be a damsel in distress, kept isolated from the outside world in the mill, much like a fairy tale princess held prisoner in a tower. As the Italian film industry became increasingly insular during the interwar years, under the regime of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, foreign films were frowned upon, and an outright ban was imposed on horror films or anything like. During those years, the dominant source for horror imagery was the animated Disney fairy tales which slipped in under the radar as children’s films. Which goes some way to explaining why many great Italian horror films often have a distinctive dark fairy tale feel to them, which Mill of the Stone Women certainly does. Though it does add a few of its own twists to the tropes.
The voluptuous and vulnerable Elfi engineers a surreptitious meeting with Hans, passing him a key and urging him to use it to visit her in the night. When he does, he finds her sleeping in a ravishing crimson gown. On waking, she tells him that she’s already fallen in love with him in dreams. Hans is unable to resist her considerable charms, despite his more profound feelings for Liselotte (Dany Carrel), whom he intends to marry.
Suspecting this indiscretion, the imposing Professor warns Hans that Elfi suffers from the same debilitating disease that took his late wife and the slightest emotional distress could trigger her sudden death. So, he must never see her again and if he should, then he mustn’t do or say anything that might excite or upset her. What a delicious conundrum.
It’s hard to understand how some critics at the time were critical of the film’s sluggish pacing. We’re not even a third of our way into the narrative and already embroiled in an enigma involving an unusual love triangle framed in a tableau of perverse, possibly incestuous, and sex and death with an added pinch of nosophobia (fear of contagious disease). Besides, even when there’s ‘nothing’ going on, we could spend much longer than the edits allow to drink in the gorgeous set designs of Arrigo Equini, a prolific production designer working with an assortment of notable genre directors including Ricardo Freda, Umberto Lenzi, and repeatedly collaborating with Ferroni, sometimes lending a hand with the scripting, too.
Be sure to make full use of the pause button on subsequent viewings to appreciate every detail of the mise-en-scène, especially when enjoying Tim Lucas’s excellent audio commentary that points out a few props that may be familiar from other Italian pulp classics. Such as the statue of an angel bearing a cross that also appears in Kill, Baby… Kill! His meticulous talk-through also fills-in some intriguing, albeit morbid, trivia concerning the origins of some of the plaster casts that adorn the Wahl’s studio walls and the dark corridors of the mill.
He identifies one as L’Inconnue de la Seine, a famous likeness of an unknown girl whose body was recovered from the river Seine in Paris during the late-19th-century. It’s said the pathologist was so taken by her serene beauty that he preserved it by casting a death mask. It was displayed in an unsuccessful quest to identify her which sparked a trade in duplicates. Copies of her death mask were particularly popular with artists in the first decades of the twentieth century and she became a paradigm of beauty for an era, inspiring poetry and paintings. A copy of the L’Inconnue de la Seine death mask would likely feature in an artist’s studio of 1912, the film’s period setting, and this scrupulous attention to detail must be one of the most subtle yet perfectly appropriate examples of foreshadowing.
It’s someway into the film before we get to see the carousel of waxwork figures in full effect when Liselotte and Hans’ best friend, Rolf (Marco Guglielmi), visit a special performance. Notably, we see Joan of Arc at the stake, Cleopatra clutching the venomous asp to her breast, along with an assortment of tortured witches, hanged criminals, and a fine lady with their neck on the chopping block. There are a number of possibilities of who each of these could be, and all in the fine tradition of the Grand Guignol Theatre and Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. There’s also something reminiscent of the life-size saintly figures found in churches. They, too, are often depicted in a state of youthful beauty along with the gruesome signifiers of their martyrdom. Beauty juxtaposed with suffering and death has been a fascination for millennia.
The mechanical parade of grotesqueries gets so intense that young Liselotte faints and in her fall, a hat pin scratches her. Professor Wahl is quickly on hand with smelling salts and reassurance that the young maiden will be fine, caringly using his handkerchief to dab the drop of blood. This isn’t the only significant drop of blood essential to the plot, in fact the film was retitled Drops of Blood for its 1963 British release and riffs on established vampiric themes.
The pricking of blood is just one of the familiar fairy tale tropes at the fore here and it seems Ferroni and his writing team must’ve studied Propp’s highly influential Morphology of the Folk Tale which, although originally published in 1928 had only just been widely translated in 1958. Whether knowingly or not, Ferroni has cleverly reshuffled its seven stock character-types to keep things fresh. Some of those archetypes are shared between more than one character whilst some transition from one to another over the course of the narrative.
For example, Professor Wahl, for all his authoritarian grandeur, comes across as rather congenial. To begin with. Whereas Dr Bohlem (Wolfgang Preiss), the resident medic caring for Elfi, seems the more sinister with ever-present phallic cigar and wire-rimmed pince-nez.
With his single-minded monocle, German actor Herbert A.E Böhme, better known for his successful stage career, brings a theatrical presence as the increasingly intimidating professor. In some shots he’s certainly channelling the early expressionist cinema of his homeland and helps evoke the desired northern European vibe to suit the supposed Flemish setting. However, except for a couple of short sequences filmed on location to establish this, the film was nearly all shot on magnificent sets at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios.
Wolfgang Preiss already had some 27 features under his belt, plus a clutch of TV movies, and since World War II had often been cast as a sadistic Nazi, although he never saw military service himself. Here, he’s been compared to a sort of Baron Frankenstein, I think mainly because of the windmill environment reminiscent of the now iconic set for James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). However, he has far more in common with Boris Karloff’s mad doctor from The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), experimenting with apparatus to purify and transfuse blood, potentially resurrecting the dead…
The same year, he also took on the mantle of the mad genius Dr. Marbuse for Fritz Lang’s third film to feature the character, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), and would reprise the role for the next four consecutive films in what became a long-running franchise. He adds a touch of the evil Nazi doctor trope and between them, Wahl and Bohlem make up two parts of what tuns out to be a triumvirate of villainy.
Hans starts out as a clean-cut, somewhat bland male protagonist, set up to be the hero who will rescue the imprisoned damsel, Elfi. However, halfway through these roles seem to reverse and we see Elfi as both abused and an abuser, and it’s Hans in who’s in distress, mentally and physically. The villainy may be shared between more than one character, and so is the heroism, with Rolf stepping in as a steadying influence that takes-up the lead when Hans begins to falter.
The film was a French-Italian co-production and the French insisted the male and female leads be filled by French talent. Pierre Brice nicely underplays the handsome hero and swings from being charmingly innocent to haggard and harrowed by his own guilt convincingly enough. He was a relative newcomer at the time with just a handful of credits but would go on to achieve cult status in the recurring role of Winnetou, the native American Apache character created by Karl May and, apparently, a role coveted by Christopher Lee.
So, we come to the three female ‘leads’ that between them convey the fairy tale archetypes of whore, hag, and maiden. I won’t spoil the fun by unpicking which turns out to be which, besides, it’s not really that simple. Scilla Gabel, who started her screen career as Sophia Loren’s stand-in, for obvious reasons, manages a fine balance between vulnerable and unnerving. She can do ‘seductive’ with great ease, but also ‘unhinged’ just as convincingly. For the most part, though, she just has to be there looking enigmatic and moody—even her gowns are colour-coded to signal her moods: red for passion, green for jealousy, grey for ambiguous. Her role has clear parallels with Barbara Steele’s in Mask of Satan and likewise, she could turn out good or bad… but there comes a point when she clearly crosses that line.
The maiden stereotype is split between the three women: Elfi, Liselotte, and vivacious showgirl Annelore (Liana Orfei), Wahl’s muse and model. Liana Orfei plays the character as if she’s just walked in from many a Hammer production and does so very well. A circus performer, she’d only just started her acting career after being discovered, and promptly discarded, by Federico Fellini, which caused enough media attention to fast-track her to mainstream stardom in Italy.
Danny Carrel came with the French money. She was an up-and-coming starlet with more than 25 features under her belt in a solid career that would span five decades. Here, she’s a fine foil for the men and balances out the feminine triad, but in general she’s passive, providing a reference point in the gendered power gradients of the period setting and is the calm at the centre of the impassioned storm.
Speaking of storms, the pathetic fallacy gets dialled to the max as the mill sails drive the creepy carousel into a tragically inevitable and frenzied, incendiary finale, as one might expect. Yes, Mill of the Stone Women is rather predictable and the reason for this is two-fold.
Firstly, though the opening titles claim the film to be based on the book, Flemish Tales by Pieter van Weigen, this is simply part of the fiction. There’s no such author, but Ferroni is taking much inspiration from a wide range of folklore and classic gothic literature. There’s a hint of Nikolai Gogol but more obvious is the type of perverse family dynamic found in the works of Poe, along with his eroticism of the deathly and the dead.
Secondly, the tropes have been tried and tested so often since, that they’re now familiar memes that, with hindsight, we can easily recognise. Nevertheless, this is a delectable example of the Italian Gothic not to be missed by anyone who appreciates the genre and should delight connoisseurs of vintage horror.
ITALY • FRANCE | 1960 | 96 MINUTES | 1.66:1 | COLOUR | ITALIAN • FRENCH
director: Giorgio Ferroni.
writers: Giorgio Ferroni, Ugo Liberatore & Giorgio Stegani.
starring: Pierre Brice, Scilla Gabel, Wolfgang Preiss, Dany Carrel, Herbert A.E Böhme, Liana Orfei & Marco Guglielmi.