Mute Witness (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's not often that a slasher/thriller is released by a recognized distributor of art-house fare (in this case, Sony Pictures Classics), but that's the case with Mute Witness. Of course, it's somewhat unfair to pigeon-hole this movie by using the word "slasher", since that term conjures images of Friday the Thirteenth, and this picture aims considerably higher. In approach and execution, if not in content, Mute Witness belongs in the same category as another low-budget edge-of-the-seater: The Stepfather.

It goes without saying that it's not a good idea to think deeply about this sort of movie while it's on-screen. There are gaps in logic -- many obvious, others less so -- but these occur in service of a better-paced, more taut storyline. Mute Witness isn't a masterpiece of plotting or originality, but it provides the requisite shocks and scares, includes a few unexpected twists, and mixes together a fair number of the genre's requisite cliches. It's slick and fun, but not great.

Mute Witness opens on the set of a low-budget, schlocky horror flick being filmed in Moscow. Director Andy Clarke (Evan Richards) has brought the production to Russia because costs are low (the same reason Mute Witness was filmed there -- art imitating life). Only two other Americans are with Andy on this journey: his lover/assistant, Karen Hughes (Fay Ripley), and her sister, the movie's special effects/makeup maestro, Billy (Mary Sudina), who is mute but not deaf. The cast and crew are all locals, many of whom don't speak English.

One night, Billy becomes locked in the studio after dark. As she searches for a way out, she comes upon two men filming what appears to be a porno movie. All is not as it seems, however, and the sex act turns violent. While the camera rolls and Billy looks on in silent horror, the naked woman is brutally hacked to death. As Billy turns to flee, she knocks over a coat rack, and a chase through lonely, deserted corridors ensues.

Director Anthony Waller keeps the tension at a high level that atones for many of the film's faults. Several thriller staples appear to have been deliberately included -- not because the plot requires them, but as a kind of "wink and nod" at the knowing audience. There isn't a need to show Billy emerging naked from a bath, but Waller does it anyway. There's a thinly-disguised playfulness about how he approaches this, as well as other, traditional slasher/thriller elements.

The last half-hour is nicely convoluted. The situation is complicated to begin with because of the communications difficulties -- hardly anyone speaks the same language, and Billy can't talk at all. On top of that, Mute Witness toys with us by making it unclear who's on whose side. Things are sorted out by the last frame, but it's fun to guess along the way about who can be trusted.

The only "name" actor in the film is Sir Alec Guinness, who has the briefest of cameos as "The Reaper" -- the vile instigator of all that takes place. Everyone else in the cast is an unknown. The best acting job is turned in by Mary Sudina, whose mute performance is lively and convincing. Fay Ripley and Evan Richards don't fare as well dramatically, although several of their scenes contain a portion of comic relief.

There's nothing especially artsy about this film. The issue of communication, and the resulting vulnerability and isolation that occur when there's no common language, is one of Mute Witness' most compelling themes, but it's too often used as little more than a plot device. This film has its share of blood, gore, chills, and thrills, and Waller is competent, although not masterful, at blending these elements without bothering too much with the abstract -- and potentially more interesting -- aspects of his production.

Mute Witness (United States, 1995)

Director: Anthony Waller
Cast: Mary Sudina, Fay Ripley, Evan Richards, Oleg Jankowski, Igor Volkov, Alec Guinness
Screenplay: Anthony Waller
Cinematography: Egon Werdin
Music: Wilbert Hirsch
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 1995-09-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1