Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mill of the Stone Women (1960) dir. Giorgio Ferroni

a.k.a. Il mulino delle donne di pietra

Logline: Young journalist Hans von Arnim (Pierre Brice) travels to an old Dutch mill house to collect information for a story about the eccentric man who lives there, Prof. Wahl (Herbert Boehme). The professor, when not teaching sculpture at the local university, operates his mill's locally famous carousel of blood-curdling wax statues. While studying the history of the mill's macabre exhibit, Hans encounters Prof. Wahl's reclusive daughter, Elfie (Scilla Gabel), who is afflicted with a peculiar disease and who will lead Hans through a hallucinatory nightmare of murder and madness.

Though prevented from attaining the role of protagonist by the presence of the ever so typically "dashing" Hans, Prof. Wahl's daughter, Elfie, remains Mill of the Stone Women's focal point. Elfie becomes so central to the film-- the main attraction in its carousel of horrors, we might say-- because her sad predicament so well encapsulates the film's attitudes towards women. Elfie is, simultaneously, a sort of kept pet and a dangerous fairytale monster, though neither role is one that she has chosen for herself. Rather, these roles have been thrust upon her by the men who control her. Because of a bizarre and fatal condition that corrupts her blood at the slightest shock or provocation, her father and the personal doctor he has hired for her, Dr. Bohlem (Wolfgang Preiss), conspire to keep her alive by giving her complete blood transfusions any time her disease attacks. The fact that this donor blood comes from still breathing victims (kidnapped girls from about town) renders Elfie an unwilling and passive vampire, feeding on the blood of others for life but dependent upon male intervention to do so. (So perhaps calling her a pet vampire would be more appropriate).

Her delicate condition and the two men's unwillingness to simply let her die forces Elfie into becoming a recluse at the mill house in which she lives, lurking its corridors like a trapped spirit. Moreover, Prof. Wahl and Dr. Bohlem continuously squabble throughout the film over ownership of Elfie, making the situation that her disease has wrought even clearer: Elfie has become an object of male desire and utility, despite her own intentions. Even our hero, Hans, is guilty of partaking in such thoughtless treatment of Elfie, as is evident when he gladly sleeps with her and then immediately forsakes her, preferring to confess his love for the safer, less sexually aggressive Liselotte (Danny Carrell). Elfie's ravenous desire for life (both literally through her passive blood consumption and figuratively through her attempts to love whom she chooses and escape her confinement) codes her as abnormal. It's for this reason that Hans forsakes her-- she's had lovers before, and, following the reliable virgin/whore dichotomy, this prevents her from becoming a person he could ever truly love (the virginal Liselotte, eager to be married and tied down, more adequately suits his requirements). As the cowardly Hans tells her as much, she remains steadfast: "What does that matter as long as you'd let me love you?" Scilla Gabel portrays Elfie with a haunting, tortured grace and brimming mania reminiscent of Barbara Steele at her most sympathetic (in, say, Margheriti's Castle of Blood (1964)). Her wraith-like appearances on screen are charged with pathos, her lapses into psychosis fueled by jealously and a basic desire to be allowed to take the independent action denied to her. She is a tragic figure, even if the film appears reluctant to label her as such, and in her heartbreaking lack of autonomy becomes one of the more uniquely ineffectual movie monsters.

But Elfie's story is representative because of its exceptional status. The film's other women acquiesce meekly to the hands of the film's men. They become pliable like wax figures-- literally so, in fact. Taking a page from André De Toth's House of Wax (1953), Prof. Wahl disposes of his victims' bodies by coating them in wax, posing them in the desired positions, and putting them on display in his carousel of sculpted horrors. One victim, Annelore (Liana Orfei), still puts her uncritical trust and faith into a wild-eyed Prof. Wahl as he pushes her towards her exsanguination, despite the fact that she's tied down to a gurney-- fittingly, the wax figure she becomes is shackled with some quite symbolic chains. Prof. Wahl's morbid carousel exclusively features strong or in some way aberrant women dying, being tortured, or being murdered for their troubles. Historical personages (Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots) commingle with various other women in states of torment or restraint, paraded along a mechanical track as if each was a ghastly monster meant to frighten the intended audience. And perhaps that's so, as the only character we see who is disturbed by the display (rather than fascinated, as all the men invariably are) is the dainty Liselotte, her reaction making plain that she's discerned on some subconscious level the warning implicit in such a horrific attraction: there is only one destination for women who chance to break the mold society has cast for them, and that is preserved in failure on a stage of horrors. The popularity of Wahl's carousel attests to the community's assent of this restrictive message. And through the grim fate of Elfie, Mill of the Stone Women presents the tale of a woman who would find a well deserved place in its own diegetic attraction.

Released the same year as Mario Bava's official directorial debut, Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio; The Mask of Satan), Giorgio Ferroni's Mill of the Stone Women has been almost completely overshadowed by that giant of the Italian Gothic. This is unfortunate considering what a tremendous film Ferroni's is, displaying in nascent though already quite well-developed form the same sort of phantasmagoric imagery that Bava would not perfect until later in the decade with Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966). Ferroni's film is beautifully lensed by cinematographer Pier Ludovico Pavoni, a veteran of sword and sandal epics who had his chance to shine in the horror genre with this film. The camera roams around the titular mill as if it's stuck on the same carousel that's at the center of the film's plot, putting on display the horrific art direction by Arrigo Equini, with its grotesque statuary--the disembodied limbs of women in agony-- adorning every open wall in cluttered fashion. Equini's surreal art direction lays bare the fact that Mill of the Stone Women has a touch of German Expressionism embedded in its DNA, with its windswept Dutch countryside and its creaky, imposing, and slightly askew windmill. It's a film one feels compelled to call "a visual feast" with total earnestness, awash as it is in (as the above poster attests) blazing Technicolor. Ferroni would go on to direct only one other horror film, the almost equally hallucinatory Night of the Devils (1972), another Gothic horrorshow that doubles as a quasi-remake of "The Wurdalak" segment of Bava's Black Sabbath (1963). The shadow of Bava looms large over Ferroni's horror output, but one hopes a greater appreciation of his distinctive, dynamic, and rather groundbreaking style will be fostered by efforts like RaroVideo's new blu-ray release of Night of the Devils.

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