Arrow Video: Mute Witness (1995) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Arrow Video

While in Hamburg in 1985, writer-producer-director Anthony Waller had a chance meeting with one of the world’s most famous actors and asked if he could film a scene with him which the screen legend graciously agreed to do even for free!  With the scene in the can despite no real plan for how or where it would be used, the Beirut born filmmaker would spend the next ten years fashioning what ultimately became his first feature film: the completely terrifying and consistently surprising Moscow, Russia set and shot giallo chase thriller of sorts Mute Witness. 
An arduous hard-boiled multiple-award winning scare fest that starts off somewhat meta before developing into white-knuckled fear, the scope widescreen thriller was an uphill battle to make with many obstacles thrown at it but ultimately went out mainstream globally.  One of the best thrillers of the 1990s that still flies under the radars of many filmgoers, Arrow Video in their ongoing efforts to restore and revitalize forgotten gems have put together a forthcoming 4K UHD limited edition set supervised by Anthony Waller replete with reversible sleeve art, poster art and an illustrated booklet penned by The Movie Sleuth’s very own Michelle Kisner.
Deceptively simple initially before ballooning into a labyrinthine crime saga, Mute Witness follows mute American special effects makeup artist Billy Hughes (Marina Zudina) working on a cheap horror film being made in a film studio in Russia by a wannabe American auteur.  After a long day of shooting, resets and being booted off the set by management until the following day, Billy Hughes accidentally gets herself locked into the studio overnight.  Foraging around for a way out, she discovers a hidden room with what appears to feature two men filming a snuff movie with a female victim.  After witnessing the murder, Billy finds herself in a white-knuckled race for escape and survival as the culprits close in.  But that’s only the beginning.  The horrors that await Billy and her crew are just warming up.

If Dario Argento or Brian De Palma decided to make a film in Russia on location using a largely Russian cast and crew, it would look and sound like Mute Witness with its stunning blocking, editing and cinematography making brilliant use of the Moscow set pieces.  Like a meta-giallo film well aware of the genre conventions while also playing on the fish-out-of-water displacement of a group of young American filmmakers trying to do a film in Russia for cheaper (echoing the film’s own script revisions moving the story from Chicago to Moscow), the Russian-German-British co-production was beset by almost as many problems as the characters faced.  Delayed numerous times over a diphtheria outbreak, the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis, below zero temperatures, a snafu where the camera equipment was seized by authorities and had to be rescued and finally extortion from the real Russian mafia itself, the film despite these setbacks came together wonderfully anyway.

Exquisitely shot and blocked with the aged set pieces and buildings captured beautifully in 2.35:1 widescreen by German cinematographer Egon Werdin and a terrifying score by German Wolfenstein: The New Order composer Wilbert Hirsch, the look and feel of Mute Witness is like being trapped and suffocated by encroaching terror.  From the use of split-diopters to show the mute heroine hiding from the killers to Peter R. Adam’s punctuated editing which cranks up the cutis anserina to a maximum, the technical filmmaking here also has a way of faking out the viewer who think they’re seeing one thing only for the film to cut to something else entirely.  One of my favorite moments includes a slaying about to happen to a bystander and it cuts to a steak knife cutting away at meat in a fancy restaurant. 

Russian actress Marina Zudina was already an accomplished screen performer throughout the Soviet era including but not limited to Valentin I Valentina and After the Rain on Thursday and while she couldn’t speak English the character required she remain silent anyways and only rely on sign language or computer voice simulation.  That she’s unable to vocalize her horror or cry out for help only enhances her vulnerability.  A resourceful heroine who is at once small and meek but thinking in fight-or-flight survival mode all the time.  Though terrified, she’s among the fiercest horror heroines of the 1990s no one talks about anymore.  Then there’s her American comrades like her sister Karen (Fay Ripley) and the petulant film director Andy Clarke (Evan Richards) who turn over good supporting roles amid the largely Russian cast with the legendary Oleg Yankovsky as Larsen the cop working undercover in an effort to protect the only witness to the crime while trying to dole out as much damage to the snuff porn ring as he can.

One of the most frightening thrillers of the 1990s which did moderate business against a tight budget to mixed reviews before fading into obscurity, Mute Witness is one of the strongest and boldest feature film debuts of the decade in a picture dripping with style and surprises every step of the way.  Also leaving ample room for humor including but not limited to fake-outs and goofs on Russian stereotypes, the lean-mean indie all but paved the way for eventual culturally displaced Westerners in Eastern Europe movies like Watcher with Maika Monroe also surrounding a murder witness terror.  Arrow Video’s 4K restoration is wonderful considering how poor previous releases were over the years and the disc is chock full of extras including the original unedited version of the scene involving a certain actor who will remain unnamed here.  I wouldn’t dare take the film’s most penultimate surprise away from you.

--Andrew Kotwicki