Seriously, now--what is it with all these puppet/dummy/mannequin movies I've been watching lately? I went months and months with only one movie in this label group (that being the 1945 British anthology flick that started it all, Dead of Night), and now in the last several weeks there's been a veritable deluge of these soulless mockeries of humanity parading through DVD player, causing me no end of gooseflesh and strangely arousing dreams.
The latest float in this macabre parade is th 1960 French-Italian production Il Mulino delle donne di pietra, better known stateside by its literally-translated English title, Mill of the Stone Women, a leisurely-paced chiller with great sets, cool cinematography, and plenty of creepy atmosphere. And dummies. Lots and lots of blank-eyed, hair-raising dummies...
We open the film in 1890, with young journalist Hans (Pierre Brice) who has traveled to the village of Veeze in Rotterdam to interview Professor Gregorius Wahl (Herbert A.E. Böhme), a well-respected sculptor and curator of the famous "carousel" at the Wahl Mill where he lives. The carousel--a spookhouse nightmare device constructed by Wahl's father which uses the mill's wind-power to shuffle life-sized effigies of infamous dead folks like Cleopatra and Joan of Arc along a funhouse track--is celebrating its centenary, hence Hans' interest. Hans' childhood sweetheart Liselotte (Dany Carrel), with whom he is interested in rekindling a relationship, also lives nearby.
After being brusquely received by Professor Wahl, Hans is installed in an attic room and given a few days to complete his work. Sequestered in the mill, Hans begins to hear strange yelping howls coming from a locked room, and sees disembodied hands clutching a curtain before being warned away by the imperious housekeeper Selma. He also gets a look at Professor Wahl's studio, which is almost as full of nightmare fuel as the carousel--life-sized statues of gruesomely hanged women, beheaded women, strangled women --pretty much any nasty thing you can think of to do to a woman, chances are good Wahl has a model of it in the works. I wonder if he could have some kind of complex that will become important later?
Next we get to see Dr. Wahl teaching a sculpting class in which red-headed Eurobabe Amilore (Liana Orfei) is serving as a model. Liselotte is a student of Professor Wahl's and it must be said he's much more personable with his girl students than he was with Hans. Later Liselotte, Hans, and their childhood friend Raab (himself) meet at the beer hall to shoot the schnitzel while Amilore sings and shows some ankle. Woohoo! Turns out Amilore is going away to Paris that night, and so will never see any of her art friends again. Hmm...I wonder if she'll make it to Paris without incident?
Finally, back at the mill, Hans investigates those doglike yelping sounds and discovers their very unexpected source--Elfy Wahl (the Barbara Steele-lite Scilla Gabel), the professor's heretofore unmentioned daughter! Hans is immediately enthralled by Elfy's strange, ethereal beauty, and Elfy doesn't think he's chopped liver either. However, the population of the mill continues to grow as the very stern Dr. Bolem (Wolfgang Preiss, looking just as German as his name), the Wahl's live-in physician, warns Elfy away from the young man's affections. "I am the only person in the world who knows everything about you!" Bolem sneers. "I am the only person you have a right to love!"
Unsurprisingly Elfy is not at all down with this idea, and invites Hans to her room at eleven that evening, for what purpose she will not divulge. When he arrives that evening--walking through some very eerie tableaux of Professor Wahl's macabre work--he finds Elfy stretched out on her bed in a red negligee, her intentions nowhere near as mysterious as her origins. Unable to resist, Hans falls on top of her as she turns down the lantern and shrouds them both in darkness. This is not followed up by more of her dog-yelps, but oh my god it TOTALLY should have been.
The next day Raab (himself) and Liselotte come to see the Carousel in operation along with half the village. Liselotte makes her romantic ideas about Hans clear, but Hans is morose and withdrawn, telling her "I don't believe I'm worthy of you!" leading the audience to wonder just what kind of sick shit he and Elfy got up to last night. Dr. Wahl starts up the carousel and Liselotte faints from terror, like you do. She hits her head and leaves a bloodstain on Dr. Bolem's handkerchief. Hmm, I wonder if...
Like I said, the movie is VERY leisurely-paced, content to give tiny hint after tiny hint, building up layer upon layer of mystery and misdirection into a pervasive atmosphere of dread and unease. And for the patient viewer, it works--MTV addled youths might be asleep or out grinding a rail by now (punk kids! stay orf my lawn!), but if you stick with it you'll soon find yourself awash in atmosphere thick enough to cut with the dagger Elfy toys with while jealously eyeing Liselotte and Hans together. Gee, there's something a little off about that chick...
Once the dam breaks, though, it breaks in a big way. Elfy goes all Glenn Close on Hans, professing her love and refusing to accept his claims of love for Liselotte. Professor Wahl has meanwhile warned Hans that Elfy is an invalid, subject to a malady that could make any emotional shock fatal (the reason for Dr. Bolem's presence), but that doesn't stop Hans from dumping her like a Tonka Truck and bringing about her untimely demise. Full of remorse, Hans flees back to Veese.
Hans soon starts wigging in a BIG way. We are soon whisked away on a 6+ minute hallucination sequence in which Hans is preached at by a reverbed-out Dr. Wahl, sees visions of Elfy among spider webs in the attic, goes to the family crypt to find her corpse under glass in the tomb, and finally sees Amilore tied and gagged in an attic room. It's a very wild and creepy sequence, and a standout in the film.
When Hans finally comes down, Professor Wahl comes in and doesn't seem to know anything about his daughter having checked out or prisoners being shackled in the attic. Hans' frenzied investigations turn up nothing, making him lose his mind and all his dramatic acting ability. Really, Brice's acting is lamentable here, hammy and unconvincing as he regularly substitutes volume for pathos. However, this does allow him to deliver the line of the film to the calmly incredulous professor: "She's there, in her tomb! Dead! DEAD! NOT ALIVE!" That kills me. Dead. Not alive.
Finally Elfy herself(y) appears, none the worse for wear despite her slight bout of death. Convinced that he is in fact going crazy, Hans accepts Bolem and Wahl's flimsy explanations and leaves. No sooner is he out the door than the two men turn to each other and practically start rubbing their hands together villainously. "Bolem! My plan succeeded!" Wahl says, a mad gleam in his eye. And then we get a huge chunk of crazy exposition that almost erases all the sleepiness that was building up before.
Turns out Elfy really did die--but Bolem, being a mad scientist type, has discovered a way to bring her back to life using the blood of another girl (men's blood is apparently no good--it has to be a girl, and she has to be at least as hot as Elfy, apparently). They've been doing this for years, because Daddy Wahl just can't let his snooky-ookums go; unsurprisingly, Amilore ends up giving the fatal refill.
Walter Paisley, apparently--with a handy secret serum he is able to petrify the dead bodies, which he poses like his sculptures and puts on display in the carousel! That's right, they're not mannequins, they're dead bodies! Just as I always suspected the ones at JC Penney's were. See, Mom! You thought I was nuts!
So with all that explained, Dr. Bolem figures out thanks to his bloodstained handkerchief that with Liselotte's blood he can cure Elfy for good. When Elfy dies again, they kidnap Liselotte, Hans and Raab (himself) race to her rescue, Bolem picks a very inopportune time to renegotiate his employment with Wahl, and Wahl makes a real mess of contract negotiations by killing Bolem before the cure is administered! Wild with grief, Wahl sets fire to the mill just as Hans, Liselotte, and Raab (himself) are reunited and flee into the night. The professor cradles his dead darling in his arms as the dummies burn and reveal their grisly innards all around him. Fade out.
Despite its slow first hour, I ended up with a smile on my face thanks to the film's crazy final third. Böhme's mad raging at the end is something to see, and there are some great effects with Wahl's "sculpture," particularly when he places Amilore's severed head on top of her pre-posed body (the sound effects are not spared, giving a nice icky touch). The girls are all lovely, and Dany Carrel even gives us a brief glimpse of nipple during the transfusion scene, shocking indeed for 1960. (The Mondo Macabro DVD also includes as an extra a gallery of nude photos of Scilla Gabel, who is quite buxom and lovely.) The mad science subplot is wild, and the ending very cool.
Mill of the Stone Women 2.5 thumbs--better than your "run of the mill" horror flicks. Haha! Hey, thanks folks, I'll be here all week.