Mill of the Stone Women (1960) aka Il mulino delle donne di pietra
Dir. Giorgio Ferroni
“Dialogue written and directed by” “John Hart” and “Peter MacNamera” (on-screen credits, actually a bunch of Italians according to IMDB) based on a short story by Pieter Van Weigen.
Starring Pierre Brice, Scilia Gabel, Herbert A.E. Böhme, Wolfgang Preiss, Dany Carrel
Here is a lesson horror movies have taught me: people who live in unusual houses are evil, every one of ‘em. Basement laboratories, soaring castles, Scottish manor houses, derelict farmhouses, caves, crypts, cabins, and communes. Anything a realtor might describe as a “unique property!” is bad news. And to that list, we can now add mills, not that we couldn’t have figured that one out for ourselves. This movie finds a handsomely bland young man (Pierre Brice, a Frenchman mostly famous for playing an Apache chief on German TV, why not?) arriving at the unabashedly sinister windmill home of one Prof. Gregorius Wahl (Herbert Böhme, the Christopher-Lee-starring Krimi PUZZLE OF THE RED ORCHID), a renowned something-or-other whose home serves as a kind of wax museum for scenes of historical women being tortured or killed. Cheerful, and totally not suspicious.
Wahl has a lovely Sophia-Lauren-esque* daughter (Scilia Gabel, THE REVENGE OF SPARTACUS**) who totally wants to jump the French dude’s bones, but the professor and his creepy doctor assistant (Wolfgang Preiss, who took over as the nefarious Dr. Mabuse in that film series following the death of original actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge) tell him to leave her alone, that she suffers from a strange disease which will kill her if she has any kind of extreme emotion. Sizing up this dorky Frenchman, I don’t think she looks to be in particular danger of death from overwhelming ecstasy, but you know how parents are. The girl is persistent, though, and her prey is French, so after an ill-advised soft-focus tryst leads to her apparent death, our heroic philanderer is plunged into a surreal nightmare of guilt and dreamlike horror involving mysterious statuary. Or… is it a dream at all?!
Obviously this one’s got some thematic similarities to classics like HOUSE OF WAX and EYES WITHOUT A FACE (both of which preceded it by a couple years). But surprisingly, it actually has quite a bit of charm of it’s own. 1960 was just before the dawn of the giallo horror era in Italy (Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY was the same year, but THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH was still three years off) and this one shows all the telltale signs of a horror tradition still firmly rooted in the cinematic language of yesteryear, but perhaps subconsciously extending curious tendrils to the boundaries of something new. It’s consummately atmospheric; cinematographer Pier Ludovico Pavoni (...? TIKO AND THE SHARK? that ring any bells?) paints his images in muted greys and blues, creating a murky, muddy look despite the crisp technicolor. He lingers on the grotesque wax figurines, soaking in their gruesome realism juxtaposed with their waxy affectation of human life. It’s a world of grim fog hanging heavy in a iron gray sky, and populated by standoffish, prickly eccentrics who can almost certainly be counted on to be up to something sinister. Even without being explicit, there’s something recognizably Italian in its prurient implications.
It’s silly, of course, but the atmospheric approach benefits it tremendously, playing off the subtly perverse screenplay and metamorphosing into something eerie and vaguely nightmarish. The youngsters don’t do much with their underwritten characters, but both Böhme and Preiss are pretty compelling villains. Like Dr. Phibes in the series bearing his name, or Dr. Génessier from EYES WITHOUT A FACE, Böhme and Preiss play somewhat complicated villains, dangerous and diabolical, but also sympathetic in a misguided sort of way. They both have serious reservations about what they’re doing (and, realistically, it’s not too hard to figure out what they’re up to given the simplicity of the premise here… in fact, the biggest surprise is that at first it seems to be going in a different direction) but they feel that they have no choice. You gotta miss these old mad scientist type films. I kinda noted the passing of that trope when I was talking about THE DEVIL COMMANDS; seems like horror cinema these days no longer has much space for the complicated villains of yesteryear. Alas, it also seems to have little use for slow-burn, eerie atmospheric horror dreams like this one. All the more reason to treasure these old gems when you happen to dig ‘em up.
*She is especially Sophia-Lauren-esque, having begun her career as Lauren’s body double.
**Oh good, he got some revenge? Finally, closure!