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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Mill of the Stone Women’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you lose something in the translation, no matter how colorfully you state it…

Mill of the Stone Women (Il mulino delle donne di pietra) (1960)
Distributed by: Parade Pictures (US Distributor)
Directed by: Giorgio Ferroni

Everybody loves a good origin story.

While not all such origins make good stories, at the very least, everyone wants to know where something or someone came from. Knowing this shows us why something came about the way it did, and in some cases can surprise us as we discover who we can thank or where to place the blame.

Imagine the surprise in finding out how Italian Giallo films developed in… Holland?

We have a cold open on a dreary Dutch canal in 1912, as we watch Hans van Arnhim (Pierre Brice) get off a canal boat at Veeze to transfer to a hired rowboat. He’s got an appointment at the place the locals refer to by the title of the film, which gets superimposed over the action as the creepy soundtrack from Carlo Innocenzi swells.

We find he’s come to the mill outside Veeze to meet Professor Gregorious Wahl (Herbert A.E. Böhme). Hans is on deadline to write a monograph about the mill, which has been in the Wahl family for one hundred years and hosts a display of female figures as either perpetrators or victims of horrible crimes, which spin past the audience on a mechanized conveyor run by the windmill’s gears

After getting set up at the mill, Hans checks in with his best friend Rolf (Marco Guglielmi) and girlfriend Liselotte (Dany Carrel), Both of them are art students, who we watch as they sketch a life model, Annelore (Liana Orfei), in a class conducted by Professor Wahl.

When Hans gets back that night, he briefly encounters Wahl’s daughter, Elfie (Scilla Gabel). This being an Italian horror film about 19th century art students, you can imagine how quickly Hans gets desirous of her… But before he can start to act on his impulses, Elfie’s personal physician, Doctor Bohlem (Wolfgang Preiss), asks him for a light, allowing Elfie to disappear into the shadows.

As Hans’ residency continues, we watch Elfie’s growing interest in him. At one point, Professor Wahl takes Hans aside to let him know about Elfie’s condition: She has a rare disease that killed her mother, a disease that necessitates having Doctor Bohlem on-site 24/7 to care for her. The talk dissuades Hans from pursuing her, but Elfie makes it clear that she still wants him and is willing to go to any length to scare him into caring…

From there, things get crazy for Hans, literally. He finds Elfie in a nearby crypt, but when he talks about it with her father, Hans is surprised to find out she’s alive. Understandably, Professor Wahl kicks him out of the mill, which give him and Bohlem more space to continue their work: To keep Elfie alive and her condition in check, they need fresh blood for transfusions from women around the area. A lot of blood, it turns out, which would normally leave a ton of corpses floating in the canals, save for Professor Wahl’s work…

Normally, if the need to bring up spoilers arise when discussing a film, we try and explain to readers why that decision was made. However, some of the elements in this film so blatantly broadcast what’s to come from being overused over the years, that any description of the film spoils itself unintentionally. So hey, cosa sai fare…?

In fact, we get told about the big twist right in the film’s spoiler-broadcasting title. This title’s also misleading, as no one actually turns to stone here, but it’s likely that naming the film “Il mulino dei manichini” was nixed by the marketing folks…

Original Italian poster

Speaking of spoiled, there’s a lot of good elements that go to waste in the film. Ferroni’s direction is quite evocative, and he brings to the film a Gothic sensibility that rivaled anything Hammer Films could put out at the time. In fact, the film earns its place in history as the first Italian horror movie shot in color, which under Ferroni consists of a large set of fantastic set pieces. The external shots done in Holland stand out along with the sets by Carlo Gentili, all of which are enhanced by Carlo Innocenzi’s score.

Sadly, their work’s not enough to cover for the weaker elements. The original script’s story (and no, there was no book Flemish Tales by Pieter van Weigen that the script was adapted from; the producers suggested a fictitious source material to give their tale more gravitas) is hackneyed and clumsy, and likely made it harder for the French and Italian crew working on the film’s shoot to get on the same page. The cast tries as best they can with what they have, but none of their efforts are solid enough to take this anywhere.

Despite its direction, eerie unique Dutch setting, and technical accomplishments, ultimately the final film is paralyzed by its script and feels like a run-of-the-mill horror film…

 

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