Mill of the Stone Women (1960)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2022-03-02 00:19

Mill of the Stone Women (1960)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: December 7th, 2021

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

As the 60s dawned, horror was at a crossroads. One foot was still moored in the gothic past, traipsing around fog-shrouded haunted mansions; the other was timidly stepping forth into a grim frontier where horrors lurked in modern, everyday settings like roadside motels. The genre was not especially quick to trudge through the latter though, especially in Europe, where gothic horror reigned supreme throughout the decade thanks in large part to the influence of Hammer Films. It’s no surprise, then, that Italy’s first color horror movie would be cast from this mold in the form of Mill of the Stone Women, a milestone movie that’s more than just a historical curiosity. Yes, you can consider it a blueprint that heralds much of its native land’s output for the next decade and beyond, but it’s also the type of sordid, trippy genre cocktail that’s timeless as it blends macabre mad science, ghoulish gaslighting, and lovelorn lunacy.

It begins, as so many of these things do, with a man summoned to a spooky estate, where he’s commissioned to do some work on behalf of an eccentric resident. In this case, writer Hans van Arnhim (Pierre Brice) has been sent to a secluded island in Holland to research a story about Gregorious Wahl (Herbert A.E. Böhme), a renowned sculptor who operates a carousel of statues within his mill. The statues are especially praised for being so lifelike, something the audience knows is a harbinger of doom because there’s really only one reason these things could look so realistic.

But rather than relish in that gory, ghastly business, Mill of the Stone Women coyly skirts around it. Hans isn’t the least bit curious about whatever’s going on behind the scenes because Wahl’s daughter Elfie (Scilla Gabel) quickly falls in love with him, and he’s eager to reciprocate—despite already being engaged. However, references to Elfie’s mysterious illness and her father’s cryptic conversations with her doctor (Wolfgang Preiss), not to mention the generally spooky ambiance mark this as a doomed romance. The blend of Old Dark House atmospherics and ill-fated melodrama is the stuff of classic gothic horror, and Giorgio Ferroni is careful that the film looks the part by reveling in the lush production design, from the foggy landscapes to the decrepit interiors, all of it awash in an otherworldly Technicolor glaze. If this was Italy’s attempt to ride the coattails of Hammer’s gothic horror revival, it’s a rousing success, particularly in the way it evokes the mood and formula of those Old Dark House pictures without tipping its hand.

In this respect, it’s also clever misdirection: you’re accustomed to assuming that something horrible is lurking within this windmill, but it’s difficult to grasp just what it is. Elfie’s death about midway through the movie makes this all the more disorienting: suddenly, the film is jolted from its axis and takes quite the scenic route in unraveling the mystery surrounding the stone women. It winds and wends through a fluorescent freak-out when Hans begins to suspect something more sinister is to blame for Elfie’s death besides her mysterious illness. Vertigo feels like an obvious influence here, as the lovelorn Hans catches a fleeting vision of his lost love descending a staircase, leading him to believe she might not be dead. Ferroni’s storytelling becomes hazy and dreamlike at this point, reflecting Hans’s unstable mental state that leaves him questioning every step he takes through this increasingly unsettling mill and its adjacent cemetery. Unsure if he’s experiencing nightmares, memories, or some combination of both, he refuses to leave the grounds before the fiendish plot hatched against him reveals itself with an unexpected turn of events.

While I generally think that the statute of limitations for spoilers have long-since expired for a 60-year-old movie, I wouldn’t dare reveal the delightfully macabre secrets lurking within Mill of the Stone Women. I’ll only say that the ghastly mad science that underpins its climax is a strikingly lurid, visceral lynchpin that’s augmented by a love triangle that grows thornier and more complicated with each revelation. Between its graphic violence and brief nudity, it must have been quite a shocker for contemporary audiences who were forced to confront this paradoxical blend of horror’s past, present, and future. Mill of the Stone Women might cosmetically resemble its gothic contemporaries from Hammer and AIP, but it has a genuine, provocative nastiness to it that anticipates those grim 60s horrors lurking on the horizon. Like the stone women themselves, its aesthetics are a deceptive front that lure unsuspecting viewers to marvel at its authenticity, only to blindside them with the ghoulish yet somehow banal truth hiding within. For all its ornate, gothic posturing and supernatural dalliances, Mill of the Stone Women ultimately knows what audiences would soon come to discover throughout the decade: true horror lurks in the black hearts and broken minds of men. There are no unvanquished spirits in this haunted house—only a grim carousel of cadavers masquerading as art.

The disc:

After being out of print on DVD for a decade, Mill of the Stone Women makes its triumphant return to home video courtesy of Arrow Films, whose definitive collector’s edition sports four different cuts of the film: in addition to the original Italian version, viewers will find an English export cut, a French cut, and a U.S. cut, each of them remastered in 2K from either the original negative or 35mm intermediates. As a result, this presentation is quite the upgrade from the old Mondo Macabro disc, particularly in terms of color and detail: simply put, the film looks more lush than it did before, and the accompanying mono LPCM tracks are more than adequate.

Arrow has also outfitted the discs with a slew of special features, highlighted by Tim Lucas’s audio commentary and Kat Ellinger’s video essay, both of which provide historical context and scholarly analysis of gothic horror, Italian film, and Mill of the Stone Women’s place within both. “Turned to Stone” is a 27-minute collection of interviews with actress Liana Orfei and film historian Fabio Melelli, while “A Little Chat with Dr. Mabuse” is a 15-minute interview with Wolfgang Preiss. The first disc also features a pair of trailers, plus four different image galleries boasting an assortment of posters, lobby cards, and even pressbooks. As has been the case with Arrow’s deluxe releases, the keepcase comes nestled in a sturdy slipcover along with some more nice extras, including lobby cards, a fold-out poster, and a book of liner notes featuring essays, reviews, and pictures. For anyone who’s been left out in the cold by Mill of the Stone Women’s limited availability should take heart—it’s been worth the wait, at least. Meanwhile, longtime enthusiasts will certainly feel compelled to upgrade for the various versions of the film alone. And those hearing about [this one for the first time have plenty of reasons to take a curious leap, especially those interested for anthropological purposes since Mill of the Stone Women is a crucial stop on the wild, wonderful, crooked Eurohorror path.
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