Director: Giorgio Ferroni
Writers: Giorgio Ferroni, Ugo Liberatore, Giorgio Stegani (script) Pieter van Weigan (short story)
Starring: Pierre Brice, Scilla Gabel, Herbert Böhme, Wolfgang Preiss, Dany Carrel, Liana Orfei
Duration: 96 mins
BBFC Certification: 15
Whenever it comes to early Italian horror, I, like many people I guess, immediately think of Mario Bava, the pioneering Italian director who combined rich, striking imagery and technical wizardry to groundbreaking and game-changing effect. Yet Mill of the Stone Women, a period horror from 1960 that is being newly released by Arrow this Winter, goes some way to prove that Bava wasn’t the only Italian director making visually rich, gothic entertainment at the beginning of the 1960s. Released in the same year as Bava’s Black Sunday, Mill of the Stone Women deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with Bava’s genre defining work, carving out its own furrow as a bold and striking example of mind century horror film making.
Directed by Giorgio Ferroni, who both surprisingly had never made a horror film before and sadly would only go on to make one more (1972’s Night of the Devils) the plot of Mill of the Stone Women (alternatively known as Drops of Blood in the UK) is characteristically simple. Set in what appears to be early 20th Century Holland, art student Hans von Arnam (Pierre Brice) arrives at an old windmill in the middle of the countryside in order to write a monograph about the macabre attraction contained inside – a gruesome carousal made of up celebrated sculptures of famous historical women brutally captured in the throes of death and torture, curated by the the mill’s owner, the eccentric Professor Wahl (Herbert Böhme). Yet Hans’ attempts to write about the macabre exhibit are soon thrown off course when he meets Professor Wahl’s mysterious daughter. As he slowly gets drawn into the mystery of her confinement, the dark secret at the heart of the windmill will soon reveal itself with shocking and terrifying consequences…
As just a cursory glance at the plot of Mill of the Stone Women will attest, the film does not try to break any new ground in regards to originality. With the titular Mill taking the place of the standard castle, the story contains all the hallmarks of classic gothic fiction, with echos of Dracula and Frankenstein having particularly made themselves felt before the film reaches its almost operatic conclusion. Yet that is not to say that the film does not find fresh takes on familiar tropes. Perhaps the biggest stars of Mill of the Stone Women are the stone sculptures themselves. Wonderfully macabre, they reminded me of the wax exhibits that used to fill the old London and York Dungeon tourist exhibits in the early Nineties, adding a layer of deliciously gruesome theatre of Mill of the Stone Women’s already impressive palette.
The first Italian horror film to be shot in colour (with, it has to be said, some help from Bava himself; although in exactly what capacity we’ll never know) Mill of the Stone Women doesn’t just hark back to 19th century gothic literature or pre-empts Bava’s pioneering work in colour. In fact, at times it feels like the film’s biggest influence is the work of director Terrance Fisher and his Hammer Horror productions. From its rich photography, to the period setting and gothic plot, Mill of the Stone Women at times feels like a lost Hammer classic as opposed to an Italian horror feature. Fans of the classic British studio’s output will find a hell of a lot to love here.
Despite feeling very much like genre piece, Mill of the Stone Women also contains elements that elevate it above the standard fare. This might be more a matter of personal taste, but the pace of the film is incredibly refreshing. Slow and steady in taking its time to build up both the characters and the mystery, almost nothing one could describe as ‘horrific’ occurs within the first hour. Yet this works entirely to the Mill of the Stone Women’s benefit, adding to the film’s already clear debt to classic literacy sources.
The quality of the writing also helps to elevate the characters themselves. While some do fall into the trap of being classic two dimensional ‘damsels in distress’ or bland male heroes, other characters are written with a surprising degree of sympathy and balance, despite their horrendous actions. Indeed, the end of the film manages to achieve a sense of tragedy and emotional resonance that is rare to see within the genre. Make no mistake here, I’m not saying that Mill of the Stone Women is as powerful a drama as it is a horror; yet, in terms of its pacing and characterisation, it offers someone more nuanced and considered than what you might typically expect from a film if its ilk.
The performances, likewise, adhere to this sheen to quality, especially when it comes to the work of Herbert Böhme, who at times seems to have wondered in off the set of a German expressionist film, and Wolfgang Preiss (who ironically would go on to play Dr. Mabuse for Fitz Lang). Without wanting to give anything away, one actress also delivers some of the best ‘corpse’ acting I have ever seen, with one eye half open, pupil rolled up under the eyelid, that really helps to add to the film’s fantastically macabre atmosphere.
Take all this, add in some absolutely fantastic windmill sets that would make Jonathan Creek jealous and an ending that is as tragic and as gothic as they come and Mill of the Stone Women proves itself to be one of the most deliciously entertaining and enjoyable period horror films I have seen in a very long time. Arrow have to be applauded for bringing a film that previously was only known to die-hard fans of the genre to a wider audience. For those of us, like me, who were unaware of the Mill of the Stone Women’s existence, we must be very thankful that they did. This is an absolutely beautiful release of a classic and under seen Italian horror that can happily stand toe to toe with the best of Bava and Hammer Horror – and that is certainly not something to be said lightly.
Mill of the Stone Women is being released by Arrow Films in a deluxe 2 disc limited edition Blu Ray package. The film has been restored in 2K from the original camera negative and it looks glorious in motion – a rich colour palette, great contrast with deep blacks, a healthy amount of grain and no compression issues that I could see. Overall, it has been very lovingly restored. Audio, which has also been restored, comes in both the original Italian and English Mono and sounds clear and sharp with no hiss or distortion.
The extras are as follows:
- New audio commentary by Tim Lucas, author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark
- Mill of the Stone Women & The Gothic Body, a new visual essay on the trope of the wax/statue woman in Gothic horror by author and critic Kat Ellinger
- Turned to Stone, a newly edited featurette containing archival interviews with actress Liana Orfei and film historian Fabio Melelli
- A Little Chat with Dr. Mabuse, an archival interview with actor Wolfgang Preiss
- Rare opening titles from the UK release, re-titled “Drops of Blood”
- German opening titles
- US and German theatrical trailers
- Image galleries
- Restored original lossless mono French soundtrack for the French version
- Restored original lossless mono English soundtrack for the US version
- Newly translated English subtitles for the French soundtrack
Commentary: Anyone who has ever watched an Arrow Bava release will no doubt already be familiar with Mario Bava and horror expert Tim Lucas. Here, he provides a typically engaging commentary, positively overflowing with information and analysis. He provides great info about the film’s influences (Dryer’s Vampyr is closely referenced throughout) as well as providing thoughts on the entire production, from production design and performances to the score and release history. For any Bava fans listening, he also explores the film’s relationship with the famous and influential director.
Mill of the Stone Women & The Gothic Body: In this 24 minute visual essay, Kat Ellinger provides a fascinating and informative look at the history of waxworks before exploring their depiction in cinema (Waxworks, House of Wax, etc). She also explores the 19th century obsession with the death of beautiful women in art and the Victorian Gothic and how Mill of the Stone Women fits into both traditions.
Turned to Stone: Coming in at just under half an hour, this extra mainly consists of an interview with actress Liana Orfei, intercut with a few comments from film historian Fabio Melelli. Orfei is a great interviewee and, despite not seeming to remember the finished film all that well, nevertheless offers some great insights into both her career (Fellini was a big fan!) and her experience filming Mill of the Stone Women. Melelli, by contrast, isn’t really given enough screen time to offer anything of significant value or interest.
A Little Chat with Dr. Mabuse: In this fifteen minute interview, Wolfgang Press candidly discusses some of the films of his career, but offers no anecdotes about Mill of the Stone Women. Nevertheless, this is still and fun and amusing watch and is worth checking out.
Alternative Versions: The first disc of this limited edition contains two cuts of the film – the original 96 minute Italian and English export versions (I watched the Italian version with subtitles. The English export version has some fairly decent performances from the dubbing actors if that is the version you’d prefer to watch). Disc Two of this limited edition contains a further two cuts, a 90 minute French version and a 95 minute US version. The French version has had five minutes cut out, plus some additional scenes added (the most significant of which seems to be an exterior scene towards the start of the film featuring Dany Carrel) while the US version has some of the more salacious aspects of the film (read: brief nudity) trimmed, as well as re-ordering some scenes here and there. Both are interesting additions to the set from a historical perspective, but neither cut offers a radially different take to the two superior cuts found on the first disc.
The package is rounded out with a rare Drops of Blood UK title sequence, trailers and stills galleries. Although not provided for this review, Arrow also add a book, postcards and posters to their deluxe limited edition release.