Monday, May 8, 2023

Mute Witness (USA, 1995)

Mute Witness, an international production with an international cast of mostly unknowns, is perhaps one of the best-made, low-budget, semi-exploitation Hitchcock films that the famed master director never made. From beginning to end, the movie plays with how things that you see are not always what they seem, as well as with the endangered innocent unable to convince others of what they saw. And along the way, it offers some true tension and unexpected twists, not to mention a high body count, a lot of blood, naked breasts, and intentional humor of varying levels of success.
Mute Witness is truly a little cinematic treat, and as such the feature film debut of director and scriptwriter Anthony Waller gained the man a lot of justified good will back when it was released — unluckily, he pretty much blew it all away with his second movie, the wretched horror comedy that is An American Werewolf in Paris (1997 / trailer), and none of his subsequent movies, including the somewhat more-redeeming ones like "straight" thriller The Guilty (2000 / trailer) or the supernatural thriller 9 Miles Down (2009 / trailer), have ever matched the promise that this horror thriller displays.
Trailer to
Mute Witness:
Filmed in Moscow, the cheesy opening scene of Mute Witness has all the hallmarks of a lousy, poorly acted body counter featuring, as those kinds of movies tend to do, a masked killer — who incongruently enough takes off his mask to smoke a cigarette and giggle at his female victim's exaggerated death throes. The first of many scenes that isn't what it initially seems: what the viewer slowly realizes is that they are not watching a bad slasher flick, but the actual filming of a bad slasher flick being shot somewhere in Moscow. The special effects artist of which is the young, pretty and mute Billy (Marina Zudina of Empire V [2022 / Russian trailer]), whose older sister Karen (Fay Ripley) is the girlfriend of the slasher's somewhat klutzy, dooffus director, Andy (Evan Richards of Midnight Fear [1991 / full film] and the socio-critical body-horror Society [1989 / trailer]). After the day's filming has wrapped, she is accidentally locked in the decrepit studios, where she witnesses the filming of not a porno film, as she initially assumes, but a snuff movie. Unluckily, she also accidentally gains the notice of the men making the movie…
What follows is a long sequence of cat and mouse, one which Billy barely manages to endure alive, but here as throughout the movie she proves to a resourceful woman. She barely survives, but survive she does — but once help finally arrives, she is unable to prove the murder or her accusations. Worse, a stolen computer disk belonging to the powerful and mysterious crime boss known only as The Reaper has disappeared, making her the target of an ever-growing web of killers who assume she knows where the disk is (and she does, though she doesn't realize it at first).
If you truly put the full plot of the movie under the microscope, cracks appear in the narrative, which truly throws a lot of disparate ingredients into the pot. But the strength of the movie is less the tale than what the director and the actors do with it, and where it is set. The dank and dreary and rundown Moscow works great, less an "exotic" location than one badly maintained and broken, where everyone is desperate for a buck  and ready for violence — and where the American trio are very much fish out of water.
Waller takes full advantage of the scenery and setting, milking the filth and cracks of the shabby and neglected surroundings for as much tension as he can without sparing the occasional dark laugh. The first big sequence of suspense and tension at the studio is easily equaled, if not surpassed, in the next one where Billy, alone at home, has to fight for her life yet again — and, soon thereafter, her sister and Andy face what seems to be a dead-end situation with trigger-happy fake cops. Luckily, though Andy is anything but the competent hero of the hour, the sisters Billy and Karen reveal themselves as anything but pushovers.
Quick-paced and suspenseful, Mute Witness is a well-crafted delight that keeps the viewer at bated breath and manages to convince due to its excellent technique, setting, and acting. The twists come often, and possibly become a bit too pat at the end, but the ride is so thrilling and so much fun that if the viewer does ever bother asking questions, they do so only afterwards. The musical score by Wilbert Hirsch is likewise enjoyably Hitchcockian, and like the movie seems less imitative than respectful of its obvious inspirational sources. In good, ol' fashion exploitation film tradition, the two scenes featuring the Reaper, played by an uncredited Sir Alec Guinness (in his last feature film appearance), were shot years before the actual film itself and, of course, never feature him in the same framed shot with another character. (A common trait of grindhouse cinema silently parodied in every Bruce Willis scene found in Alex Rodriguez's Planet Terror [2007].)
The world would be a better place if all low budget flicks displayed as much flair and gumption and style as Mute Witness. The movie is well worth searching out and watching, should you have the opportunity. It seems so odd, not to mention a shame, even now, that over a quarter of a century later, Anthony Waller has yet to deliver another film project as fresh and enjoyable as Mute Witness. And, worse, that Mute Witness appears to have drifted into obscurity. Discover it for yourself. Now.

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