Starring: Marina Zudina, Fay Ripley, Evan Richards and Alec Guinness
Written & Directed by: Anthony Waller
Rated: R
Running Time: 1hr 35mins

Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films – Sitges – Catalonian International Film Festival – Best Film“Writer, Producer, and Director Anthony Waller met Sir Alec Guinness quite by chance in Hamburg in 1985, where he asked him if he was interested in doing a one-scene cameo. To his surprise, Guinness said he’d be delighted and that he would do it for free. The problem was that Guinness was fully booked for the next eighteen months, so Waller suggested they shoot the scene the following morning in an underground car park. Guinness readily agreed and, true to his word, took no payment…  Writer, Producer, and Director Anthony Waller filmed Sir Alec Guinness’ scenes ten years before the rest of the movie from an earlier draft of the screenplay. Guinness gave his performance in one morning before catching a plane. When Waller needed an additional scene, he used the film from earlier and reversed it.”IMDB

The 1995 film MUTE WITNESS is a perfect example of an Underexposed Cinematic Treasure. Despite critical acclaim, it only grossed a little over a million dollars on its initial theatrical release and, as I write this, very few people know of its existence. The amazing poster design alone (One of my all-time favorites), featuring a close-up of a woman’s face whose lips are sewn together with the word “Mute,” should have generated enough curiosity to make it at least a modest success. An inspired directorial debut by filmmaker Anthony Waller, it’s a low-budget feature that never feels low-budget and belongs in any conversation that includes some of the most intense independent films ever made, such as John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN and Joel and Ethan Coen’s BLOOD SIMPLE. A suspenseful edge-of-your-seat thriller filled with more than its share of unpredictable twists, an interesting lead performance by Marina Zudina and a surprise uncredited cameo by legendary actor Alec Guinness, it’s a real surprise that the movie didn’t go on to have greater success or maybe even gain a cult status. 

The story centers around a group of American filmmakers who are shooting a low-budget film at a studio in Russia. The lead character is Billy Hughes, a special effects artist who also happens to be mute. Late one night after the day’s shoot is completed, Billy is accidentally locked alone inside the studio. Not knowing what to do, she investigates a mysterious noise, hoping to find some people who can help her get out. Unfortunately, instead, she stumbles upon a couple of men making a snuff film and witnesses the murder of a young woman. What follows spirals in unexpected directions as Billy, her sister, Karen, and her sister’s boyfriend, Andy, are drawn deeper into a crazy game of cat and mouse.

MUTE WITNESS spends much of its time paying homage to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian DePalma and John Carpenter. Though this is his feature film debut, Waller, who also wrote the script, directs the tension with the skill of a seasoned professional. Working with cinematographer Egon Werdin, they create an overall grungy tone for the film while, at times, using every inch of the widescreen frame to their advantage in creating added tension between the characters who share opposite sides of the same image.

Waller also made the interesting choice of refusing to keep the story grounded within a single genre. Just as we start to settle into what we think is going to become a typical cat-and-mouse-style horror story, the movie seamlessly changes gears and becomes more of an old-fashioned thriller. This helps to throw the viewer off guard while tossing predictability out the window and adding to the edge-of-your-seat suspense.

The filmmaker’s smartest decision was to add a very special trait to the character of Billy by making her mute. This puts her at a further disadvantage when it comes to calling out for help or even communicating with those in close proximity whose assistance she desperately needs. Waller takes full advantage of this by including many scenarios in which the heroine would have an easier time escaping if she could just mutter a few words, building added tension to the viewing experience. What would be a simple call to 911 turns into a communications nightmare and when her sister arrives at a crucial moment, Billy has no way of effectively warning her about the reality of the situation.

Billy’s inability to speak isn’t the only instance where the idea of a language barrier is used to great effect. Billy, Karen and Andy are all Americans who speak one language – English. Having the film set in Russia creates a fish-out-of-water scenario for our protagonists. Because most of the characters in the movie speak Russian as their first language, this communication breakdown becomes one of MUTE WITNESS’ most compelling elements, not only for the characters but also for the audience. Waller makes the bold decision never to subtitle the Russian dialogue, which effectively adds to the viewer’s confusion as we are left completely in the dark about a lot of what is going on, especially regarding the antagonists. A daring choice from the director, which could have easily failed but instead becomes one of the film’s strongest thematic aspects.

The cast is strong as a whole, but it is Marina Zudina who gives the stand-out performance as Billy. To say that the film’s success lies mostly on her shoulders would be an understatement. Playing a mute, she is forced to make her way through the story without speaking a single word. She effectively uses her facial expressions and body language to showcase Billy’s frustrations and fears as she pushes through the harrowing events while trying her best to survive. Billy is also one of the few smart characters present in the horror genre as a whole. How often does the audience complain about the stupid decisions that characters make when working their way through a horror film? Billy is written and portrayed as intelligent and resilient. Very rarely does she make any of the bad decisions that we have witnessed characters in other horror films make over and over again.

Overall, MUTE WITNESS is an unforgettable movie filled with nail-biting suspense. In my opinion, it should have left more of a mark on the audience and definitely belongs in the category of “must-see.”




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