Synopsis: A mute makeup artist working on a slasher film in Moscow is locked in the studio after hours. Witnessing a brutal murder, she must escape capture before convincing authorities of what she’s seen.
Stars: Marina Zudina, Fay Ripley, Evan Richards, Igor Volkov, Sergei Karlenkov, Alec Guinness, Aleksandr Pyatkov
Director: Anthony Waller
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Hanging out at the local Mr. Movies as much as I did during my teen years, before I started working there the manager took pity on me and let me browse through his catalog of films all franchise owners were sent. This is what studios would use to advertise their films in the pre-internet days when some of the more indie titles would need that extra push to get smaller hubs to order a copy or two of their film. That’s how I first saw the arresting VHS box art for Mute Witness, which differs greatly from the movie poster featured above. I’ll include it below, but you can see why it was an eye-catcher and how it practically marketed itself without needing to explain much of the plot. People would rent the movie based on the visual alone, and I know this to be true because our store ordered one copy (I’d like to think my persistence had something to do with it) that was frequently checked out.
I saw this British funded thriller made in Moscow when it was first released and didn’t remember much about it and when I found a random DVD copy recently, I took it as a sign that Mute Witness came back into my life during October for a reason. Firing it up again didn’t jog any old memories from the VHS era but the rewatch did create some positive new ones. While writer/director Anthony Waller’s suspenseful potboiler doesn’t set out to reinvent the often-utilized genre trope of a central character that saw something they shouldn’t having to evade grievous bodily harm, it does deliver genuine thrills with over-the-top gusto.
American movie director Andy (Evan Richards, Society) has come to Moscow to film a low budget slasher film, bringing along his girlfriend Karen (Fay Ripley) and her mute sister Billy (Marina Zudina) to work on the crew. Communications are already strained between the Russian-speaking cast and their English-speaking director and the working conditions in the rundown studio in an isolated part of town aren’t that much better. On this day, an actress is performing a death scene, one she turns into a curtain yanking, desk flipping, dish breaking, three act-play. Make-up artist Billy barely has time to whip up another batch of fake blood before it’s time to call it a day. Realizing she forgot something as she’s leaving, Billy returns to the studio alone and winds up locked in by a hard of hearing night watchman.
Up until this point, Waller has presented Mute Witness with some stylistic flourishes and allowed it to rumble slowly to life. The movie within a movie beginning is cheeky fun and while the language barrier is used for laughter at first, it will soon become a hinderance for our unlucky title character. While trying to find a way out, Billy gets back to the soundstage and sees a horrifically brutal murder…or does she? At first, we believe she does and the way she gets chased around the abandoned building by two men you certainly don’t think they’re looking for her opinion on their lighting of the scene. For a time, there’s a big question mark Waller attempts to place over the event, leading the film down the wrong fork in the road that only unnecessarily pads the running time.
It becomes a long night not just for Billy but for Karen and Andy too as they get involved with the crime and a growing band of criminals and authorities that have a stake in either getting Billy to talk or silencing her for good. Waller has obviously seen a good deal of Alfred Hitchcock and even more Dario Argento and Brian De Palma films because there are references to all of the above throughout the film. Mute Witness almost plays like a souped-up attempt to recreate De Palma’s feverish filmmaking with Argento’s grand orchestration for scenic composition. The most effective scenes are the ones that are the most compact, giving the players little room to move around and forcing them to get resourceful in finding their way out of danger. Elevator shafts, bathrooms, exposed hallways…all are free for Waller to place a person in peril.
The often unevenness in tone spills over into performance. As Billy, Zudina carries the movie easily, even when she’s going far bigger than she needs to. A trained theater actress, Zudina often plays to the back row of the theater in her reactions and with Waller’s tendency to slow things down it can come across a bit comical instead of terror-filled. Also, you have to give her credit for making it through one scene where she gets a little too creative with trying to get a person’s attention in an apartment across the street. All of the Russians feel like they were dubbed later on (maybe by the same person) so there’s a one-note to most of them. Then there’s Sir Alec Guinness (yes, THAT Sir Alec Guinness from Star Wars and Murder by Death) appearing in a cameo that he filmed TEN YEARS before the movie was made. You can go here and read all about it but it’s truly a…unique story.
I do think Mute Witness is worth your time if you can find a copy. Largely unavailable on streaming and rarely (if ever) shown on TV, your best bet might be to suck it up and buy a copy on eBay or see if your local library has it. It’s a showy bit of horror that knows exactly what buttons to push and keeps jabbing at them right up until the end, not willing to let the audience rest a single moment until the credits roll. Greedy on the part of the filmmakers? Maybe. That’s way better than not giving you anything to scream about, though!
Here’s that VHS Cover, as promised!