Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
1960 was a boom year for international horror. From America came the first of the Corman-Poe
pictures and Psycho; in England Hammer was running strong and Michael Powell brought out
Peeping Tom. On the continent
Black Sunday made its
influential debut, and Roger Vadim released his bizarre Carmilla story Et Mourir de Plaisir
(Blood and Roses). An exotic runner-up among these attractions was Giorgio Ferroni's
Mill of the Stone Women, a shocker that made a successful European run. It didn't show
in the United States for three years.
The UK outfit Mondo Macabro has been releasing Region 1 DVDs for a while now. This deluxe
presentation of Mill of the Stone Women rejuvenates a classic title that, at least in
the U.S., had existed only as a rumor. All we ever seemed to see were faded, flat VHS transfers
of a cut-up and badly dubbed version. Of the people I knew who had actually seen it, none could
remember it clearly except to say that the original Technicolor was stunning.
Hans von Arnam (Pierre Brice) comes to a Flemish village to work for Art Professor
Gregorius Wahl (Robert Boehme), documenting his old windmill that serves as a famous wax museum. He
re-encounters old sweetheart Lisolette Carnin (Dany Carrel), one of Wahl's students, but is seduced
by Wahl's mysterious daughter Elfi (Scilla Gabel). Told to stay away from the young lady, Hans
nevertheless is drawn to her room and into the horrible secret shared by her father and his "guest,"
Doctor Loren Bolem (Wolfgang Preiss).
Mill of the Stone Women is an artfully contrived horror concoction clearly inspired by the
Eyes Without a Face. While
Italians Bava, Margheriti and Freda were making
underfunded B&W films, Giorgio Ferroni got to work with color, beautiful sets and elaborate art
direction. This mad doctor hybrid rethinks a fairytale-like story about a moritiferous young woman
in a setting reminiscent of
The Mystery of the Wax Museum.
Hans arrives in a moody Flemish canal town and finds trouble in Dr. Wahl's creepy windmill-house
where the rooms are strewn with art bric-a-brac and odd statuary. A local tourist attraction is
rigged to the windmill's clockwork, a carillon display of female mannequins that parade on a track
to the amusement of visitors. They represent ill-fated females from history: Joan of Arc,
Cleopatra, etc. One is a graphic hanging victim and another lies ready at the head-chopping block.
But the weirdest woman in the mill is an elusive pianist who first appears holding a dog on a
as did Barbara Steele in Black Sunday. Beautiful but strange, Elfi is that woman whose
attraction hides secrets we'd rather not know about, the one who appears in stories from the Bible
onward to inspire men to foolish decisions. Hans is honest but vulnerable and gives in to Elfi's
The next day Hans has learned the difference between lust and love and guiltily declares himself
to pert Liselotte. But Elfi overhears them. Although professor Wahl entreats Hans to stay away from
Elfi - her health is very precarious - Hans meets with her to break off the affair with
honor. Elfi appears to die on the spot from some kind of seizure. After wandering the night in a
disoriented state, Hans returns to the mill and the sinister Dr. Bolem gives him a "tranquilizer."
Hans proceeds to hallucinate a number of strange phenomena - missing pendants, bloody knives, a
redheaded beauty bound and gagged in the doctor's basement laboratory. He briefly sees Elfi both
alive and dead in a cobweb-filled room.
It's at this point that Mill of the Stone Women drops its
supernatural tone to become a medical horror picture. Professor Wahl and Doctor Bolem's morbid
secret requires the blood of young women and the thriller resolves with a kidnapped heroine and a
last-minute rescue. But there are decidedly macabre touches. Corpses are fashioned into statues, a
dummy is buried in place of a body.
All of this would be exploitation trash if it were not for director Ferroni's well-developed morbid
aesthetics. The basic "save one woman by exsanguinating another" idea had been done to death in
films like She Demons and
only in the previous year's Eyes Without a Face was it suggested that such trashy pulp could
become surreal art. Mill of the Stone Women sets a fantastic stage with the strange
architecture of the Mill interior and the carillon. Expressive lighting creates images that animate
and elevate the drama. There's nothing crude about the delicate use of color to support the
Professor Wahl's entrance through a narrow aisle of carved emblems and
religious sculptures gains depth and drama with its rich lighting scheme that includes a blood-red
patch of light on the floor. Elfi stands holding a crimson rose (much like Annette Stroyberg in
Blood and Roses) or lies draped across her bed awaiting the arrival of Hans, bathed
contrasts that heighten her sensuality. In a two-shot embracing Hans, she moves from rimlit
backlight to a careful composition with a Joan Crawford-like eyelight across her otherwise dark face.
This is more than just pretty pictures, it's the kind of extraordinarily careful lighting seldom
seen in genre efforts. The "aesthetic delirium" has an impact similar to that of Vertigo.
In horror, only Freda's
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock
Black Sabbath have a more
compelling color atmosphere.
Mill of the Stone Women takes place sometime around 1912 and has a good sense of
period decor. The canal-side exteriors are hazy and overcast. To get to the mill, one uses
a bell like the one in Dreyer's Vampyr. It's been pointed out that many
of the set dressings are familiar from other Italian horror films, so it's likely that the
Belgian exteriors were all matched to interiors shot in Rome. The only production disappointment is
the unconvincing miniature of the mill used for night exteriors - it weakens the film's ending.
The musical score veers from a creepy carillon tune to a lush romantic theme for Elfi's
The acting is all fairly formalized. The two mad doctors behave in an expressionist manner,
one obsessed with saving his daughter and the other obsessed with bedding her. They're both
gentlemen scholars who function as kidnappers, murderers and mutilators of young women, and
that doesn't take into account the bizarre regimen of transfusions they're putting Elfi
through. Herbert Boehme is intimidating as the father. Sinister Wolfgang Preiss
(The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse)
mixes his surgical villainy with an understandable lust for the heroine.
Scilla Gabel is the film's focus. Pete Tombs explains her appeal - the ravishing
Italian beauty served as Sophia Loren's stand-in before using plastic surgery to find her own
look (shades of Lex Yeux sans Visage!). Her full body contrasts with a face that's all
bone structure - her skin appears to be stretched across her cheeks far tighter than Barbara Steele's.
She's a lean vixen with hungry, haunted eyes. Between Gabel, Steele and Dahlia Lavi
(The Whip and the Body) we
get a full spectrum of exotic horror heroines.
Our hero Pierre Brice is handsome enough (Tombs tells us he played Winnetou the Indian in a series of
German Westerns) and gives Hans some needed complexity. He can't resist Elfi's invitation and feels
he's betrayed both her and Liselotte. 2
Hans looks suitably frazzled when given Dr. Bolen's tranquilizer - what is it, LSD? - and outraged
when he discovers the full depth of the plot.
The biggest name in the picture is Dany Carrel, a sexy contender for stardom with an interesting
face. She's mostly decoration here, providing the slight bit of nudity that puts the film
on the transgressive edge where it needs to be. Marco Gugliemi serves as the gee-whiz best friend.
Liana Orfei is the beautiful victim to fulfill the Eyes Without a Face formula quoted by
Raymond Durgnat - one girl is sacrificed, and another saved in the nick of time.
Foolish Professor Wahl forgets Rule Number One when dealing with a madman: Allow the genius surgeon
to revive your daughter before you stab him to death. Although the mad doctor machinations
provide a fiery ending what we remember most from Mill is our hero's seduction by a strange
woman who asks him to throw caution and responsibility to the wind. The doom she represents is
difficult to separate from society's double standard that encourages young men to take what they
can get while they can get it. Elfi is neither vampire nor madwoman, but she is a prejudiced
image of the female sex, an example of the "mysterious female" representing the notion that Sex is
evil in itself. She's a Lorelei, a Siren, the woman with the skull face representing lust or vanity
in all the old engravings, the one that symbolized War in old political cartoons. Mill
of the Stone Women is an excellent example of an undefined misogynistic myth.
Mondo Macabro USA's NTSC DVD of Mill of the Stone Women is a stunning presentation. I've
watched terrible brown VHS cassettes trying to imagine a good copy, and this disc is it. The enhanced
image is obviously from a good 35mm element and the transfer is basically fine. The color is rich
and overall sharpness is good.
The discmakers appear to have had access to a full complement of excellent material. The film comes
with three audio tracks - the dub for the U.S. version supervised by Hugo Grimaldi (the import film
molester known for Gigantis the Fire Monster and
First Spaceship on Venus), a UK dub,
and the French dub. I recommend watching the French dub with English subtitles - the voices are much
harsher in English, and the lip movement seems to match the French dialogue better, except for
Liana Orfei's pub song. Her lips clearly match the German lyrics heard in the trailer.
The version differences are rather confusing. In the feature, the French audio reverts to English
for a couple of short scenes apparently trimmed from the French cut. Three other deletions are
presented separately. In one scene Dany Carrel watches a puppet show on a
bridge. An alternate version of Hans' drug hallucination is there, along with an elegant
title sequence for the French release, Le moulin des supplices (Mill of Tortures). I
wish the disc had used this instead of Grimaldi's ugly English replacement. His main title treatment
would be more suitable for The Flintstones.
Mondo Macabro loads the galleries with extras. There's an American trailer and a full set of
promotional posters and pressbooks from all the international markets. Long and detailed bios for
several of the actors are included, but not for the director. The entries for Scilla Gabel (we're
told to pronounce it Shee-la) and Dany Carrel come complete with racy nude photos, quite a
surprise. An entry on the film itself features extensive facts and observations compiled by noted
Eurohorror critic Pete Tombs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mill of the Stone Women rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, still, art and bio galleries
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 4, 2004
1. An unusual variation on
this theme is in Stephen Sondheim's musical
2. That's not a line I recommend using on a girlfriend: "I slept with
her but it's okay because in the process I discovered I love you. Forgive me?"
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson