Published on March 29th, 2018 | by Thomas Weinmaster0
Tom works out some haunting demons from his childhood by tracking down and watching the movie Mute Witness, a surprisingly decent thriller from the 90s.
Everyone remembers watershed moments during childhood when their whole world changed. Maybe it was when you found that Playboy with your buddies, or when you got that brand new Huffy ten-speed. These moments come fast and furious in our formative years, but far less often as we became adults. One central dividing line in my life was the time before Mute Witness, and the time after it. Making this whole exercise markedly stranger is the fact that I never actually saw the movie.
When I was around eight or nine, my friends and I would regularly go to the video store to pick out movies for sleepovers. Then we’d stay up all night watching them and playing video games. On one particular night, we’d rented a Sandra Bullock flick called The Net. It’s a techno thriller about a systems analyst that gets caught up in an international conspiracy, and let me be the first to tell you that it doesn’t hold up well at all. I’m not sure it even held up upon release, come to think of it. The main feature didn’t make too much of an impression on me, but one of the trailers that led into it sure did. It featured a young woman relaxing in bathtub below a large window, intercut with chase scenes and troubling imagery. She looks up at the window, to see a ghoulish, blood covered woman with her hands pressed against the glass. The apparition disappeared as quickly as it appeared, and the title slammed into the screen. Mute Witness.
It was something so simple that fractured my young psyche. The invasion of this horrible creature into the most private of moments flipped a switch in my head. I couldn’t sleep that night. From that moment on, I was terrified of darkened windows. What could be lurking out in the night? What could see me when I couldn’t see it? Was it just waiting for the right moment to show itself? I was haunted for what seemed like years by that scene. Nightmares featuring that woman visited me every time I closed my eyes. Soon I forgot the name of the movie, and only the image of the creature that terrorized that poor woman – and now a poor, young boy – remained.
As I grew older the fear faded, but the memory of the image that had so traumatized me remained. Now, twenty years later, I set out to find the film that had caused me so much distress. Perhaps it was just curiosity, or maybe a desire for catharsis, but I tracked it down, which was not easy. There has never been a high definition release, and the DVD is currently out of print so copies are fairly scarce. Either way, I was determined to wade into the progenitor of one of my greatest childhood fears, and I’m taking you with me.
The film cold-opens with a young woman being terrorized by a psychotic killer in her apartment. She is stabbed several times, and the killer watches in amusement as she thrashes around for what turns out to be a comically long time, before pulling down the drapes and collapsing in death. It turns out to be the first of a few ‘gotcha’ moments as the camera pulls back to reveal this is a movie set, with a hot shot young director shooting his new horror film on location in Moscow. It is here we are introduced to our protagonist: Billy Hughes (played by Russian actress Marina Zudina), a young makeup/special effects assistant, who happens to be mute.
Through an unfortunate miscommunication, Billy is left trapped in the studio overnight. With no way to call anyone using the studio phone due to her disability, she wanders the halls, seemingly amused at her predicament. After investigating a noise, she comes across two of the Russian actors on the main set, apparently filming a porno. Her amusement turns to horror as one of the men takes out a knife, and brutally murders his female co-star on camera. It would deprive you of some great moments to describe more, but suffice to say that Billy becomes embroiled in a plot that goes far beyond a simple snuff film, and has to overcome the limitations of her disability in order to escape alive.
From the opening scene, it is clear that Mute Witness takes a lot of inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock. Camera work such as the oft-imitated Vertigo dolly zoom, the first person camera shot from the killer’s perspective, and the sparing use of actual gore (closeups of the face of the murder victim, the knife driving downward, or blood splashing on the wall) are all on full display. The MacGuffin (in this case a floppy disk that contains information unknown) makes an appearance as well. The plot twists and turns, with the audience never knowing who we can actually trust, and the movie is eager to pull the rug out from under us, even if we sometimes know what’s coming.
The whole exercise looks and sounds great, despite its age. Moscow is suitably dark and menacing, and the sets are equipped with all manner of dressing to enhance the cat and mouse games that enthrall the viewer. Director Anthony Waller uses shadow play, clever cuts, and subtle music cues to ratchet up the tension and keep you gripping the arms of your seat. Special effects are hit and miss, as is to be expected from a 90s movie with a middling budget. There is one particular scene involving an electrocution that is laughably bad, but overall the use of practical effects and clever camera work hide most deficiencies.
It’s worth pointing out that Mute Witness is not really a straightforward horror, much to my surprise. It’s a white-knuckle meta-thriller. There are elements of horror, and certainly some scary scenes, but beneath the facade there is a completely different film that tracks more like aforementioned Hitchcock thrillers. Filled with tension, fear, and uncertainty, it’s a ride that keeps you invested to the end.
Comedy is also utilized sparingly, but with considerably less success. The levity seems intended to relax the viewer between nerve-jangling scenes, but it is used clumsily, and the main story is so tight that it only serves to grind everything to a halt. Disregarding the lazier comedic moments, the film certainly does not take itself too seriously, much to its advantage. This material has been tread over many times, and coming at it without a sense of self-awareness would likely have been a mistake. Plenty of winks and nudges are offered to eagle-eyed viewers, and the director seems to dispense these moments with great joy. Slasher conventions are easily turned upside down, and grand chase sequences bookend the story to kick your heart rate up a gear. This is a movie that knows it’s a movie (and a movie within a movie), and it’s all the better for it.
Performances – aside from the lead – are not outstanding, but Marina Zudina does a great job emoting Billy without any dialogue, and plays a thoroughly believable character. She is a woman with agency, intelligence, and cunning. This is how a final girl is done right. Fay Ripley and Evan Richards as Billy’s sister and the director respectively are pretty bad, over-acted and often utilized for comic relief. The large contingent of Russian actors do an admirable job, but the antagonists seem somewhat disconnected, though suitably menacing. Sir Alec Guinness makes a surprising appearance (in what turns out to be his final theatrical film role), which provides a bit of cinematic legitimacy to the proceedings, but not much else. His scenes were apparently filmed in one day by the second unit in Germany, away from the main production in Russia. This disconnect is evident in his performance, for which disinterested would be a generous assessment.
So, what about the scene? The bathtub scene and the inspiration for so many nightmares and frantic blind pulls to hide the encroaching blackness? I’m happy to say it is great, and lives up the hype. I won’t spoil it for you, but the camera work is sublime, and the score creates tension as it builds to a wonderful peak for the scare. In the context of the film, it’s not as frightening as I had made it out in my head, but it is done tremendously well, and it genuinely made me jump all these years later. So often we look back on a moment in an old movie that made such an impression, and we are disappointed to see that our memory betrayed us. Maybe the effects were bad, maybe it was entirely different than we remembered. That is not the case here.
All in all, I really enjoyed Mute Witness, and I would recommend it both to Hitchcock aficionados and thriller-lovers alike. I’m sure my younger self would be surprised to learn that all-out horror takes a back seat to thrills and a good bit of meta-commentary, but the movie-lover in me couldn’t be happier. What could have been a by-the-numbers slasher takes on a message while still jangling the nerves, and simultaneously maintaining a sense of self-awareness.
The audience is kept invested, waiting for the next twist and turn in the story, while great camera work and audio cues fill us with dread as our heroine dives deeper and deeper into this dangerous world. Weaknesses in certain performances, and shoehorning in of comedy bits do distract, but don’t sour the experience, especially with such strengths on display. The overall feeling in me isn’t really one of catharsis, but more one of delighted surprise. They say never meet your heroes, but I’m happy I confronted this demon. I get to share a laugh with myself more than twenty years in the making, and my only regret is that it took this long to happen.