Friday, June 12, 2009


1960 was an annus mirabilis for global horror cinema. The U.S. produced Psycho and Corman's House of Usher. Great Britain contributed Peeping Tom and a host of Hammers. Italy gave us The Mask of Satan (Black Sunday). Japan issued Jigoku. The Witch's Mirror from Mexico is also worthy of mention. A French film from the previous year, Eyes Without a Face, was making its way around the world. The French and Italians got together during this remarkable year to shoot a film set in the Netherlands, with Giorgio Ferroni directing a cast of French, German and Italian actors in a story that seems like a mash-up of American horror concepts with rich European flavor.

Hans Van Arnim arrives in a Dutch town to research a paper about a windmill that Professor Wahl has turned into a kind of museum of infamy. The mill no longer turns grain, but operates a mechanical parade of doomed women of history: Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Mary Queen of Scots and others of more regional interest. It's not a very informative exhibit from what I can tell. The figures zoom across the stage as sinister carnival music plays, without any commentary or narration that I noticed. But the figures are exquisitely done, as Wahl is an expert sculptor and an instructor at the local university, where Hans's childhood sweetheart Liselotte is a student. It's a small enough town that the art school model Annelore also sings at the local tavern. She's quite the conspicuous young lady, and not a good choice if you're looking to kidnap girls off the streets, but that's what's in store for her.

Hans has the run of the mill, where Wahl also lives, and the situation is perhaps too intimate. Our hero hears the occasional wail and gets hints of a female presence that are finally confirmed by the appearance of the Professor's mysterious daughter Elfy. She's known of but not known well in the town, where it's rumored that she's a recluse because of unbearable ugliness. Hans finds out otherwise; she is strikingly beautiful in that haunted Gothic way. He learns that once Elfy makes relationships she can be quite possessive and jealous, and we can see the eye daggers Elfy aims at Liselotte when she visits Hans at the mill. Liselotte seems a frail girl, the kind that faints at something as innocuous by our jaded modern standards as the parade of statues, which has earned the little museum the "Mill of the Stone Women" name. Maybe it's just a tribute to Wahl's artistry that those statues can frighten someone so. They are pretty realistic as such things go.

Scilla Gabel as Elfy wishes you ill, like she is most of the time.

Elfy never leaves the mill because she's sickly herself. She has 24 hour on-site care from Dr. Bolem, who has a crush on the girl that is neither reciprocated by Elfy or really welcomed by her father. Details like these make work uncomfortable for Hans. You wonder whether this is one of those cons where the doctor is keeping the girl sickly so he can dominate her and live of the professor, but any doubts of her ill health are dispelled when she seems to drop dead before Hans's eyes in the middle of a jealous fit.

Hans takes it hard because he'd been warned not to agitate Elfy. He enters a self-induced delirium in which he seems to see Elfy in a coffin, then alive again, and in between those sightings, a familiar young woman tied to a chair. But the professor and the doctor assure Hans that his delirium was deeper than he thought. What's all this about Elfy dying, after all, when here she is alive and well?

Wolfgang Preiss, Fritz Lang's final incarnation of Dr. Mabuse, glowers as a secondary villain in Mill of the Stone Women.

All right, what is going on here? We want to share Hans's doubts, but once he leaves the mill we get straightened out pretty fast. Elfy suffers from a really bad blood disease that requires her to receive total transfusions to purge her system. Between them, the professor and the doctor can't figure a better way to go about this than to kidnap women of like age (like Annelore, we learn)and exsanguinate them to replenish Elfy. Their creativity went into the disposal method for the bodies: Mill of the "Stone Women," indeed! Bolem isn't thrilled about the arrangement, but he accepts it as long as it keeps Elfy alive. Even better, however, is the chance to permanently cure her through one more transfusion using the blood of a perfect donor, none other than Liselotte....

Herbert Boehme as Professor Wahl wishes to shield your eyes from the horrors to come. He went on to play a "Policemeister" on a long-running German cop show.

In some respects, Mill of the Stone Women is about twenty years behind American horror. What we have here, after all, is a cross between Mystery of the Wax Museum/House of Wax and any random Poverty Row horror where Bela or Boris has to kill women in order to keep his beloved alive. Eyes Without a Face may be an influence here as well, though I don't know if that was filmed early enough before to influence Ferroni and his writers. A key difference between that film and Mill, however, is that while Edith Scob's character in Eyes repudiates her father's ruthless attempts to kill her, Elfy is fully complicit in what her father and Dr. Bolem are up to. In one nasty scene she gloats over a strapped-down Liselotte at the thought of taking her life and her love away. My Gothic sensors initially registered Elfy as a victim, but she ends up just as much a villain as her father and the doctor. Selfishness is the undoing of all three characters, the professor's refusal to let Bolem have his daughter triggering the final catastrophe.

"No, Liselotte, I don't expect you to enjoy it. I expect you to die!"

I'm not sure if Mill is better described as a romantic Gothic or a Gothic romance: both elements are there. The direction, Arrigo Equini's production design and Pier Ludovico Pavoni's cinematography give the creaky plot a strong romantic tint; the Mondo Macabro DVD is simply beautiful to watch. Carlo Innocenzi's music is also very effective, proving again that the Italian composers could bring it before Morricone came along. Especially during the fiery finale, which is marred by a bad model of the windmill, the overall impression of sight, sound and story reminded me of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman's collaborations. Influenced strongly by past films, Mill may have had influence of its own later on. It may not have been as innovative as some of its Class of 1960 mates, but I think it's worthy of modest mention in their august company.

Here's the American trailer, uploaded to YouTube by Awoly.


venoms5 said...

This is an excellent write up on one of the more obscure Euro horror movies. It deserves more exposure. If you enjoyed this one, Samuel, you may well enjoy the thick Gothic atmosphere present in the German horror film, THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (1967) starring Lex Barker and Christopher Lee in the title role.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Venom. As a matter of fact I have enjoyed Torture Chamber, which is a harsher film than Mill but clearly of the same class.

Rob T. said...

It's good to see a positive review of this film, but I take issue with your mild condescension toward it. There's nothing "modest" about this film's qualities, and it stands up very well alongside its allegedly more "august" company.