Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
I’d seen Mill of the Stone Women mentioned in passing countless times but didn’t know much beyond it being the first Italian horror film made in colour. The title sounded both interesting and clunky, with the characteristic oddness I associate with Italian films of the era. And if there’s one thing I want in my October Horror Movie Challenge roster, it’s classic Italian horror.
Mill of the Stone Women is currently streaming on Shudder in the UK.
Our dashing your protagonist, Hans, has been tasked with writing a monograph on the sculptor Gregorious Wahl. He travels to Wahl’s studio and gallery — a converted windmill in the Dutch countryside, filled with all manner of strange and grotesque statuary. While Wahl is too busy to give much time for interviews, he does allow Hans to stay at the mill and carry out some research.
Soon after arriving, Hans catches glimpses of Wahl’s reclusive daughter, Elfie. This strange young woman quickly becomes enamoured with Hans. This poses a few problems, however. Not only is Hans finding romance with his old friend (and student of Wahl) Liseolette, but Elfie has a rare medical condition that means any excitement might kill her.
When Elfie attempts to seduce Hans one night, this proves too much for her weak constitution and she appears to die in front of him. Of course, this is far too gothic a romance for death to prove any barrier. Hans starts having strange visions of Elfie that lead him to doubt his sanity. Is he actually going mad or is Wahl’s sinister associate, Dr Bohlem, playing with his perceptions?
As Hans struggles to understand what is going on, some of the women around him disappear. Is this all connected? What does it have to do with Elfie’s mysterious condition? And what exactly is the terrible secret of the Mill of the Stone Women?
Mill of the Stone Women is packed with almost every gothic trope you could imagine. There are sinister family secrets, a sickly relative kept in seclusion, a house filled with secret passages, weird experiments in both art and medicine, and more damsels in distress than you could hope to save in a lifetime.
These distressed damsels are far more than plot devices or window dressing, however. One of the many strengths of Mill of the Stone Women is how effectively it makes us empathise with the plights of the victims. Even though the imperilled women are, largely, supporting characters, we are fully drawn into the horrors they experience.
The mill itself is a wild location. Wahl’s lurid display of witches, murderers and martyrs, driven by the mechanism of the mill wheel and accompanied by jangly fairground music, is already the stuff of nightmares even before we learn the truth about it.
The second act presents a wonderful descent into madness. Hans is plunged into extensive hallucinations and delirium, and we are with him for the ride. The mind games he undergoes are some of the creepiest gaslighting I have seen on screen.
For someone of my generation, Mill of the Stone Women is a comfortingly familiar kind of horror. The gothic story, garish colours and rustic European setting could come from any number of horror films I grew up with. There is certainly something of Hammer Horror or even AIP to the production.
At the same time, this is a very Italian film. Every aspect of the production is gorgeous, from the costumes to the mill itself. The real stars are the strange statues that populate every scene. The film would not be half as unsettling without their blank-eyed stares watching over everything.
The story is slow-moving, but in a way that builds dread. While it takes almost an hour for us to learn the secrets of the mill, the sinister hints and atmosphere are more than enough to keep us hooked. Unusually, for this kind of film, the story kept me guessing. While I correctly deduced some aspects of the sinister schemes, their scope and complexity took me by surprise in the best kind of way.
While everything is wrapped up in a manner you will have seen in any number of classic horror films, the resolution works perfectly here. It is not only thematically satisfying but has such narrative weight behind it as to feel inevitable. There is a real sense of tragedy, inviting us to feel for even the most villainous characters.
All in all, Mill of the Stone Women is a delightful film. Its old-fashioned story and presentation are unlikely to scare modern viewers in the slightest, but this is a film from 1960. If you’re the kind of horror fan who enjoys classic gothic melodramas, you’re in for a rare treat.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Werewolves Within (USA, 2021)
- Crystal Eyes (Argentina, 2018)
- Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)
- Thirst (Australia, 1979)
- A Ghost Waits (USA, 2020)
- Cemetery of Terror (Mexico, 1985)
- I Came By (UK, 2022)
- 100 Monsters (Japan, 1968)
- Sea Fever (Ireland, 2020)
- Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
- Glorious (USA, 2022)
- All the Moons (Spain, 2021)
- Broadcast Signal Intrusion (USA, 2021)
- Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
- The Gore Gore Girls (USA, 1972)
- Luz: The Flower of Evil (Colombia, 2019)
- Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italy, 1971)
- Saloum (Senegal, 2021)
- The Addiction (USA, 1995)
- Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
- The Freakmaker (UK, 1974)
- The Long Walk (Laos, 2019)
- Eyes of Fire (USA, 1983)
- Errors of the Human Body (Germany, 2013)
- Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
- The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
- His House (UK, 2020)
- Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
- Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden, 1922)
- Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!