Armin’ Hammer

A quintessential horror gem that I would usually save for my annual Halloween Blitz, MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN gets a special spring mention, due to the fact that this stunning, new Arrow Blu-Ray is a limited edition. LSS, they’ll likely all be gone by October.

Released in 1960 (with Alglo distribution on-hold until 1962), MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN, the first Italian horror movie to be shot in color, and based on a genuinely creepy short story by Pieter van Weigen, is proof (very) positive of the ever-spreading influence of Hammer Films worldwide. As early as 1958, clueless producers began inserting color sequences in their product – figuring that was the Hammer magic touch. Indeed, it took AIP and Roger Corman a full three years to realize that gothic charm was the real carrot to the British company’s success. Even then, the U.S. Poe adaptations never quite match the early Terence Fisher masterpieces.

But it was more than merely goth and color. There was a new, insidious and addictive sense of eroticism liberally dousing the baroque prim-and-proper proceedings. Ironically, Roger Vadim’s 1959 entry Blood and Roses (the overrated director’s only great pic) “got it,” but still remains unreleased on Blu-ray/4K; fortunately, he wasn’t alone. Other talents on the European continent prevailed, and the primo result is this Italian-French co-production, nicely scripted by Remigio Del Grosso and Louis Sauvat, with uncredited assist from Giorgio Stegani, Ugo Liberatore, and director Giorgio Ferroni (wearing his two hats ably), and superbly photographed by Pier Ludovico Pavoni.

MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN, surely a contender for one of the oddest movie titles of all-time, is possibly the most deliberate attempt to ape Hammer in style and content. And it’s the most successful. In brief terms, it can be categorized as House of Wax meets Eyes Without a Face with a side of The Man who Could Cheat Death and a nod to the Gorgon legend (which Hammer would tackle four years later). Quite a lot for an hour-and-a-half.

Played out among the hauntingly alluring Flemish countryside in the late Victorian era (and sumptuously filmed on-location in Holland and Belgium), MILL concerns the renowned artist Professor Wahl, who lives in an ancient mill/studio near the university where he teaches. But the mill is more than a mere residence. Housed on the main floor is an iconic museum featuring exquisite statues of females carved in orgiastic states of death and torture on a revolving carousel, created decades ago by the Wahl’s ancestor. To commemorate a celebration of this macabre crowd-pleaser, the community has commissioned Hans, a budding, young writer, to compose a monograph on the work and the family behind it. That he is also romantically involved with Liselotte, a beauteous promising student at the Professor’s academy is the enticing-icing on the cake.

As the unfaithful scribe is to learn, there are strange secrets at the mill, including Dr. Bohlem, a weird resident/voyeur who seems to pop in and out at inopportune times. But primarily there is Elfie, Professor Wahl’s (literally) drop-dead gorgeous daughter. Revealed to be suffering from a rare disease, the malady does not intrude upon Hans being a willing participant in Elfie’s seduction of the author. Since she is played by the sensually spectacular Scilla Gabel, it’s easy to see how this dangerous liaison happened. Soon, fetching locals are disappearing, most notably the popular model/whore, Annalore. Coinciding with these occurrences are new additions to the carousel…and remarkable recuperative powers from the oft bed-ridden (in more ways than one) vampiric succubus Elfie.

The chilling conclusion is an artistic kaleidoscope of visual fireworks – some hallucinatory, all sensational.

MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN had a varied release, in no less than FOUR different versions: the Italian, the UK, the French, and the U.S. ALL FOUR ARE INCLUDED IN THIS TWO-DISC SET, housed in a sturdy, handsome slipcover. While the Euro versions highlighted its stunning cinematography in Eastman Color, the American prints were Technicolor – and as good as the process gets. Pavoni’s lavish photography is as near to Hammer’s Jack Asher’s (my bid for Hammer’s top d.p.) as one could wish. This is indeed one beautiful-looking movie (and disc). Because the Euro editions tended to be more graphic, running times vary (between 90 and 96 minutes). It’s definitely worth exploring them all. Admittedly, the English dubbing is occasionally like something out of a Second City sketch, so I suggest the French or Italian versions (with excellent English subtitles). Aside from the extraordinary Gabel, MILL features a game cast, including Pierre Brice (Hans), Herbert Boehme (Professor Wahl), Dany Carrel (Liselotte), Wolfgang Preiss (Dr. Bohlem), Liana Orfei (Annalore), and Marco Gugliemi, Olga Solbelli, and Alberto Archetti, . The excellent mono track contains an appropriately moody score by Carlo Innocenzi.

The splendidly restored imagery in 1080p High Def is certainly reason enough to purchase this eerie triumph. But the enormous amount of extras that Arrow has embodied the set with pushes a mere reason into no-brainer territory. Included as supplements are, as indicated, a quartet of different cuts, restored (but different) British and American dubbing, a wonderful fully-illustrated booklet with writing by Roberto Curti, comparisons between the four versions by Brad Stevens, a fold-out double-sided poster with the original and newly-commissioned artwork (the latter by Adam Rabalais), six double-sided postcard-sized lobbycards, audio commentary by Tim Lucas, a visual essay by Kat Ellinger, archival interviews with Liana Orfei and Wolfgang Preiss, still galleries, a collection of international trailers, and more.

That MILL precedes Bava’s Black Sunday/Black Sabbath duo and The Whip and the Body is yet another reminder of how influential this pic was. In conclusion, this is a limited edition classic horror fans won’t want to miss!

MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Arrow Video. CAT # AV394. SRP: $59.95.

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