Mute Witness (Anthony Waller, 1995)

SHE CAN’T SPEAK. SHE CAN’T SCREAM. SHE CAN’T BEG FOR MERCY.

Working on a low-budget horror film in Russia, Billy Hughes (Marina Zudina), a mute American makeup artist, witnesses a brutal murder on a movie-set, however her claims are doubted by her friends and by Moscow police. Still, the killers know the truth and the instructions received from their underworld boss is clear: no witnesses. So begins a night of terror for Billy as she struggles to save her own life and trust a KGB agent (Oleg Yankovskiy) who claims to be her saviour.

Anthony Waller’s Mute Witness is an expertly made thriller comparable to the classic suspense of Alfred Hitchcock and Wait Until Dark and the contemporary shocks of Brian de Palma and Silence of the Lambs. Watch it and be left speechless.

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS

  • Brand-new 2K restoration from the original camera negative, produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Surround Options
  • Audio commentary with writer-director Anthony Waller
  • Speaking Up, new interview with actress Marina Zudina
  • Bearing Witness, new interviews with actors Fay Ripley and Evan Richards
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Steven Jay Schneider

My dad used to like the word “slick.” In film parlance, “slick” often has a derogatory connotation, used to describe a film that masks its shortcomings or its superficiality with stylish construction. It connotes the bait and switch. On the other hand, when my dad called something “slick,” he described something that was clever, surprising, inventive, and fun. Something that was “slick” both did the job and did it with panache. Anthony Waller’s Mute Witness (1990) is a slick film in this latter sense, an expertly crafted genre film that eminently succeeds in its purpose – delivering thrills.

Part of Mute Witness‘ slickness rests in the contrasting intersection of movie fiction and real-life threat. Waller’s film opens deep in horror film conventions with a deranged killer stalking a couple in their home and largely shot from the killer’s POV. While the dying victim tears apart her home in the throes of mortal agony, the film gradually expands its view to reveal the murderer and a host of sniggering on-lookers observing the scene. The death is acted on a Moscow movie set helmed by self-absorbed American director Andy Clarke (Evan Richards) and staffed by his girlfriend Karen Hughes (Fay Ripley) and her mute sister Billy (Russian actress Marina Zudina). The death scene is transformed from dreadful to ridiculous as the artifice of filmmaking is revealed (and the dying actress is unwound from the curtains she’s tangled herself within). In these opening moments, Mute Witness displays the apparent absurdity of making a movie, how the staging and performance bears little resemblance to the finished product later projected on a theatre screen (and perhaps suggests that our judgements of Mute Witness itself be appropriately measured). Naturally then, Billy, an FX designer working on the film, is somewhat amused when she returns after hours to pick up a prop and discovers the set being used by couple members of the Russian crew to shoot a porn scene. Bemusement turns to terror when the female participant is stabbed to death before Billy’s very eyes and the technician becomes a witness to a snuff film’s making, forcing her to hide and then flee from the perpetrators in a extended game of cat and mouse through the dingy movie studio.

Billy survives the ordeal thanks to the unexpected arrival of Andy and Karen but the murderers are able to convince attending police officers that the killing was a fiction made using one of Billy’s props – a blood-spurting knife with a false blade. Billy returns home to her apartment still convinced that that the murder took place. She would be free and clear of the incident except for an order to leave no witnesses alive, a dicta handed down by the enigmatic Reaper (a criminal underworld kingpin played in a surprise cameo by Sir Alec Guinness and shot by Waller in 1985 thanks to a chance meeting in Germany with the legendary actor). The remainder of Mute Witness attends to Billy’s efforts to evade more murderous thugs, assess the uneasy assistance of a KGB agent (Oleg Yankovskiy), and locate a disc of underworld data, a plot element tossed in midway into Mute Witness for good measure. The line between fact and fiction, performance and reality, remains a central point of tension in the film. When are the cops actually cops and not costumed gangsters or corrupt authorities? When are weapons actually threatening and when are they harmless props? When are wounds life-threatening and when are they just corn syrup? Waller further blurs this line by exploiting the barriers of language (between the visiting Americans and the Russian locals) and of voice (between Billy and almost everyone), but in key moments the line becomes crisply delineated by Billy’s singular recognition of that look of mortal danger, something signified in the film by a series of axial cuts that brings the victim’s face into closer and closer view. It’s a garishly ostentatious technique but it’s remarkably effective and in keeping with the technical verve consistently represented in the movie.

Waller’s efforts in Mute Witness most frequently draws comparison to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, or his most notorious emulator, Brian de Palma. The connection is flattering, a commentary on the expert construction of Mute Witness, the primacy it places on thrills, and the effectiveness by which it delivers them. Waller demonstrates himself as a student of Hitch but unlike de Palma, his efforts aren’t self-consciously citational. Waller acts in the service of his story, not of his influences. As conspicuous as his dolly zoom is when Billy makes a break for a fire exit, it’s no commentary on Vertigo and its legacy – just a wonderfully indexical expression of subjective panic and desperation. And Mute Witness is full of such well-crafted sequences, using a director’s grab bag of techniques to not just build suspense in a given sequence but to reveal the ingenuity and pluck of the film’s central character. The most notable sequence of Mute Witness beyond the initial movie studio portion is a wonderfully traumatic imagining that occurs after Billy returns to her flat and precedes the well-staged apartment-invasion she defends herself from. Taking a bath, Billy struggles to let go of the harrowing events of the evening as the dripping faucet and droplets of condensation on the bathroom’s window draw her mind back to the bloody murder. It is here where Mute Witness crosses beyond the enhanced realism of focus pulls and into something echoing the paranormal with visions of blood infiltrating the bath and a wonderful audio-visual stinger involving the murdered woman. It’s the moment that stays – a true moment of horror amid a bounty of suspense.

Viewers are likely to also find shadows of John Carpenter, Dario Argento, and Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967) hidden within Waller’s thriller, although the best comparison might be much less recognizable until one notices that Waller’s next project was the lamentable An American Werewolf in Paris (1997). Waller’s efforts in Mute Witness strongly connect to the work of John Landis (director of An American Werewolf in London (1981)), particularly for their shared audaciousness. Waller seems to channel Landis’ co-existing respect for genre cinema and his mercenary attitude for doing whatever is necessary to create an entertaining movie, most particularly when comes to bringing comedy into the mix. For as buffoonish as Andy and Karen often are, they bring a vitality to the film and preserve a sense of spontaneity and possibility that is essential to finding scares as well. The two films also share a fish-out-of-water plot, with a drably bureaucratic and threateningly masculine Moscow standing in for some foggy moors and local legends. Mute Witness may not be An American Werewolf in London, but it walks a similar line and does so quite proficiently.

As an under-appreciated horror-thriller by a British writer-director that features the last performance of Sir Alec Guinness and that appears to out of print on DVD both in the UK and in North America, Mute Witness seems to be as natural a fit as one might find for the Arrow Video imprint. And it’s slick: technically astute, thrillingly unapologetic, atmospherically intimidating, and just convoluted and goofy enough to remain surprising. Mute Witness needs to be heard from once again, and Arrow could make that happen. Or so MMC! hopes.

Credits: Previous editions of Mute Witness have been shy on special features so we’re building here from the ground up. Fay Ripley is an active English actress while Evan Richards currently works as a producer, so we’ve imagined recruiting them to discuss the film together given the screen time they share. Anthony Waller and Marina Zudina’s IMDB credits are a little older, but we hope both are still available to discuss the film as well. Steven Jay Schneider was chosen to provide an essay given his positive review for the Central Europe Review. Thanks are also owed to reviews by Emanuel Levy, Roger Ebert, and Daniel Baldwin for Bloody Disgusting.

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