1960 was an important year for horror. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was ensuring that audiences would think twice before stepping into the shower, while the great Mario Bava made everyone look up and notice him with the masterpiece of gothic terror Black Sunday. But while Bava’s film was in black and white, another film of that year went for a similar feel, only in glorious colour: Mill of the Stone Women, now on Blu-ray with a wonderful new restoration.
Directed by Giorgio Ferroni, Mill of the Stone Women is about a famous attraction in the German town of Weeze on the border of the Netherlands. The attraction is the titular mill, which contains a bizarre exhibit of waxworks of famous female figures such as Joan of Arc and Cleopatra, and which is approaching one hundred years old. With the centenary not far off, writer Hans (Pierre Brice) is assigned to visit the mill and get all the information first hand from its current custodian, art professor Wahl (HerbertA. E. Böhme).
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However, Hans is entranced when he encounters Wahl’s daughter Elfie (Scilla Gabel), who we are told is housebound with a terrible disease but is no less magnetic for it. Despite having a girlfriend, Liselotte (Dany Carrel), Hans is drawn to Elfie but is stunned when he finds out the truth about her illness. Thus begins a journey into the mad and the macabre as he attempts to separate fact from fiction and fantasy from reality.
Mill of the Stone Women shares some similarities with Black Sunday, notably Gabel’s striking resemblance to Barbara Steele, but its role as the first colour Italian horror really makes it stand out. It’s clear that Ferroni has looked at Terence Fisher’s Hammer films, with The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula at that time having recently been released (in 1957 and 1958 respectively), and indeed Mill of the Stone Women could fit in that canon easily. It’s a typical gothic tale, with the mill in place of the traditional castle, and while it occasionally meanders, it packs some strong punches and makes for a proper tale of the uncanny, with mad scientists and foul deeds alike.
Probably the least effective thing is Brice’s lead performance, although it’s clear he’s acting in a very specific melodramatic style, and it improves as the film goes on. Böhme is wonderfully creepy, along with Wolfgang Preiss’ amoral Dr Bohlem, and they make a quite macabre pair. Of course, the women aren’t given much to do but look pretty and scream, but Gabel’s performance nevertheless has a suitably unhinged quality to it.
What goes a long way to making the film is the atmosphere generated by the set design by Arrigo Equini and the cinematography by Pier Ludovico Pavoni. The confining space inside of the mill with its turning cogs gives the film an interesting location, along with the secret passages and rooms that are either filled with the requisite lab equipment or lovely velvet accoutrements, including one clearly designed to mimic a vulva. Pavoni gives the film a wonderful deep colour palette with his lighting conjuring some brilliant shadowy work, as well as an outstanding hallucinatory sequence where his cinematography seems profoundly phantasmagorical.
Along with this is Carlo Innocenzi’s eerie musical score, which again feels like something that may have come out of Hammer. It’s wonderfully subtle at times and gently underlines the uncanny journey of Hans, but is bold and cacophonous when necessary.
Arrow have restored Mill of the Stone Women from the original camera negative at 2K resolution and an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The film looks beautiful, with those colours really shining, bringing a wonderful visual experience. Audio is provided in lossless Italian and English, and it’s a strong track, with great clarity, especially when it comes to Innocenzi’s music. Arrow has also provided four separate versions of the film: the original Italian version, the English export version, the French version, and the US version, the latter of which is especially different due to a colourful re-edit.
Extras are plentiful, starting with an interesting audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, which discusses the stylistic tendencies of the film and its relation to Mario Bava and larger place in the Italian canon as well as the clear influences of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr. There’s also ‘Mill of the Stone Women & The Gothic Body’, a fascinating video essay by Kat Ellinger that looks at the waxwork trope as well as the sexuality and worship of the female form found in the films, along with ‘Turned to Stone’, a featurette which features interviews with actress Liana Orfei and film historian Fabio Melelli, a conversation with Wolfgang Priess, the opening titles from the UK version, renamed as the ridiculous Drops of Blood, the german titles, trailers, and an image gallery.
Mill of the Stone Women deserves to be a higher-profile entry in the canon of Italian horror and perhaps gothic horror in general, and hopefully, it will attain that position with the excellent work Arrow have done on this Blu-ray. A wonderful restoration and interesting and relevant extras make it an enticing package. Highly recommended.
Mill of the Stone Women is out on Blu-ray on 29th November from Arrow Video.