Sunday, October 24, 2010

Stone Cold

It's not without a certain amount of admiration and affection that I suggest that The Mill of the Stone Women (1960, directed by Giorgio Ferroni) reminds me of a Mexican horror movie. I once called Mexican horror movies like The Black Pit of Dr. M or The Curse of the Crying Woman "Blender" movies, in which you take a number of proven stock items, throw them in a blender, and hit "puree." And so it is with this film, even though it doesn't come from Mexico. Italy was good at this sort of thing, too.

This movie is a conflation of Eyes Without a Face and House of Wax. I'd suggest, too, the influence of Mario Bava, but for the fact that this movie was made before Bava made a horror movie in color. Maybe it was something in the water in Italy at the time. In addition to the obvious touchstones, The Mill of the Stone Women includes two different varieties of the insane genius archetype: the mad scientist and the deranged artist. And to top things off, it climaxes in a burning windmill, a la Frankenstein. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Our hero, Hans, arrives in the rural Netherlands to write a monograph on Professor Gregorious Wahl's odd clockwork display of infamous women. Wahl's studio and his display are housed in a windmill (which powers the thing). Wahl's household includes his daughter, Elfie, who suffers from some mysterious ailment, and her physician, the sinister Dr. Bolem. Elfie is a hothouse flower, suffocated by her father and ready to latch on to the first man who comes through the door. Hans is her not unwilling paramour. Unfortunately, Elfie is jealous, too, and when she spies Hans with his girlfriend, Lisolette, she flies into a jealous rage, then falls dead at Hans's feet. Hans flees the scene, but comes to his senses and returns, only to find Elfie missing and all of the evidence of what happened gone. Soon, he's embroiled in the dark secret of the Wahl family, which puts both him and Lisolette in grave danger...

In summary, this all sounds kind of banal; a stock genre piece, if you will. In execution, this plays in the big leagues. Director Giorgio Ferroni had superb production resources to play with, including impressive art design, an unusual setting, and gorgeous Technicolor photography. Even though the print on Mondo Macabro's DVD shows some fading, it's still beautiful. Ferroni is savvy enough with Technicolor to realize that it shows redheaded women to advantage, and he includes one as Professor Wahls class model (and later victim). There are a lot of contrasting rich greens and deep reds: the closest things to what this film looks like are the early color films of Mario Bava, particularly The Whip and the Body. Ferroni further decorates his film with a startlingly beautiful cast. Both Scilla Gabel as Elfie and Dany Carrel as Lisolette command the screen. Gabel once doubled for Sophia Loren, while Carrel was often cast in the kinds of roles that were imagined for Bardot. It's not a bad pedigree. The movie contrasts the two as a classic Madonna/Whore dichotomy. It's a credit to Pierre Brice that he's not blown off the screen by his leading ladies. He's a thoroughly yummy-looking man.

If the film has a flaw, its that it lacks an instinct for the jugular. While Professor Wahl's exhibit is certainly grotesque--especially once the surface is burned away--there are no scenes in this movie comparable to the grotesqueries of Eyes Without a Face or Black Sunday. It's almost chaste (ignoring some very fleeting nudity late in the film). It compensates for this with a genuine sense of weirdness, particularly during a drug-induced freak-out on the part of our hero at the center of the movie. Here, Ferroni milks his production design for all it's worth, while taking full advantage of the unfamiliarity of the film's setting. The result is a movie that shows to advantage the strengths of the high Gothic mode, while effectively papering over it's various weaknesses.

This movie was a longtime victim of shoddy and mutilated editions, so it's nice to see a good version. In fact, the difference between the Mondo Macabro edition and the long-ago Paragon VHS version of the movie where I first saw it is like night and day. It's not even the same movie. In any event, it's a striking movie that deserves to be more widely seen.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 23

First Time Viewings: 23


Darius Whiteplume said...

I tend to give Gothic horror a lot of leeway. Even when a film fails to really shock, it is always nice to bask in the cobwebbed creepiness of it all :-)

Bob Turnbull said...

What Darius said...As soon as you compared the look of this to "Whip and the Body", I was on board - that's a gorgeous movie. I've added this to my zip list and hopefully will get to it before next October...

Looking back over everything you've seen this month, I've only seen 3 of them. Thanks for bulking up my queue!

Unknown said...

Redheads really look gorgeous in old Technicolor. Give me back that color footage and romantic Gothics!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rose. Welcome!

I know what you mean about redheads in old gothics. I think that's why Barbara Shelly was always my favorite of Hammer's leading ladies. Have you ever seen Simply Scarlet (a color film noir from the mid fifties)? Talk about a movie that explores the cinematic potentials of red hair!