MUTE WITNESS [1995]

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Directed by:
Written by:
Starring: , , ,

UK / RUSSIA / GERMANY

AVAILABLE ON LIMITED EDITION 4K ULTRA and BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO

RUNNING TIME: 95 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera

Mute Witness Arrow Video 4K UHD

An American film company is shooting a horror film in Moscow. The mute makeup effects artist Billy Hughes returns to the studio after everybody leaves for a mask she’d left behind. She finds two men shooting a snuff movie and, as she watches, murdering a woman. She’s seen and flees. However, when she returns with the police, all evidence has been removed and the filmmakers claim they were only shooting test scenes for the horror film. The Reaper, the powerful head of the Russian vice syndicate that sponsors the filmmakers, demands that Billy be eliminated. As hired killers come after her, she tries to flee, but her efforts are hampered by her inability to speak….

I first saw Mute Witness on a pirate video. Why a pirate video, you may ask? Granted, many of us horror lovers back in the ’90s had to resort to obtaining certain films, or obtaining certain films uncut, illegally, usually by answering advertisements in the back of certain video magazines [especially one with the words “video” and “world” in the title], but surely Mute Witness was never banned or cut,  was it? Well actually it was, for two years, our wonderful BBFC deciding, during another bout of nonsensical “too much violence on video” crap, that it was unsuitable for public viewing at home, even though, when I watched it, it seemed to be in no way deserving of this ruling, with even the nastiest scene being handled with restraint. I recall being rather disappointed by this – I was a real gore-hound back then – though I certainly wasn’t disappointed at the rapid pace and constant excitement of a thriller that really did thrill, even if its second half wasn’t quite so good as its first half. In fact there’s an early 25-mimute cat and mouse set piece which is simply tremendous, one of the very best of its type and absolutely stunning filmmaking from writer / director / producer Anthony Waller, who should have made a string of terror and suspense classics but who instead never quite fulfilled the promise he showed; The Guilty and the rather underrated An American Werewolf In Paris[I’d love someone to redo the CGI for that one, it would make so much difference] perhaps being his next best. Mute Witness does suffer a little from Waller’s decision to put in some humour in the second half which doesn’t always come off, but it never ceases to conpel, largely because, while there are a fair few films like this where blindness is a theme, having a mute lead is less common. The implications of this are well portrayed, and actually integral to the plot as the fact that the lead character can’t speak is often the reason why she finds herself in dangerous situations that would be easy for others to get out of.

Originally called Snuff Movie, Waller had been trying to get this off the ground since 1985. Back then, it was set in Chicago and Billy wasn’t mute. Waller bumped into Sir Alec Guinness by chance in Hamburg and asked him if he was interested in doing a one-scene cameo in a student film. To his surprise, Guinness said he’d be delighted and would do it for free. Unfortunately Guinness was fully booked for the next eighteen months, so Waller suggested they shoot the following morning before Guinness caught a plane. They only had an hour and a half and had to use an underground car park with air conditioning that they couldn’t turn off, so there and then Guinness had to dub the take that was deemed the best. When filming properly began in 1993, Waller needed an additional scene with Guinness so he used some shots from earlier and reversed some. The story was now set in Russia because Moscow providing much cheaper sets and labour. Gina Bellman was originally cast as Billy, but had to drop out due to a kidney infection. Replacement Marina Zudina didn’t speak English, but as her character was now mute, she was still able to pose as an American. Financed by Waller himself and millionaire Sasha Buchman, the production was delayed multiple times. Shooting equipment flown out to Moscow was impounded by corrupt customs officials who demanded sixty thousand dollars in customs duty to release it. With a little diplomacy, a few thousand dollars and a lot of vodka, the producers were able to free the equipment. The first day of shooting was the constitutional crisis [President Yeltsin performed a self-coup] with cast and crew hearing gun fire. There was a diphtheria outbreak. The Russian Mafia kept hanging around and had to be paid off. It’s a wonder that the film was completed at all, but completed it was. Having turned it down after reading the script, Columbia-Tristar picked it upand distributed it to some success.

A radio is playing before a musical sting and we’re outside, assuming the POV of a killer, watching a woman in her bedroom, as we again hear the radio, this time telling of a murderer and bis two accomplices who’ve just escaped from a hospital where they stabbed two nurses, the killer being “extremely dangerous, brutal and unpredictable”. You remember that great opening from Blow Out where a killer roams around a dormitory before approaching a girl in a shower and the fourth wall is suddenly broken when the girl lets out a very poor scream and we see that it’s a film being shot? Well here we have something similar, though the killer’s POV is less used as he grabs a knife, kills the woman’s husband offscreen – the old “body falling to the floor” device well handled – and approaches her while she’s on the phone. He stab her a few times while she’s on her bed, but then staggers back into view while we’re in the lounge, while we have closeups of three men  watching; though they aren’t the villains, they’re members of a film crew, and it’a not going great, because tbe actress just won’t fall down and die, similarly to Peter Sellers in the hilarious opening to The Party, even pulling down a curtain and then continuing to stumble about. An English guy interprets what a Russian woman says to her, “I think we have a little communication problem here, when I said more, i didn’t mean trash the set – this is not Chekov, you’re not  the star, you’re just another victim”. The lady even forgot to make the blood flow by squeezing an airbag which is on her.  A technician up at the lights spookily cries in Russian “use more white, like a real  dead body”, then another guy appears to tell them that they can’t reshoot the whole scene because it’s nearly six o’ clock and another crew is booked to use the set the next day.

It’s lights out, though Billy glimpses that some lights are on when when she goes back into the studio to get a mask and sees Russians Arkadi and Lyosha making what initially seems like a porno movie, until Arkadi, wearing a stocking on his head, repeatedly beats the woman he’s being filmed having sex with, before tying her hands together. The woman’s fear is upsetting, and then she catches a glimpse of Billy watching in a gut-wenching bit, before the man pulls out a knife and stabs her over and over again. We cut away, it being decided that a quick shot of the gore-covered body was enough, but the scene still has a devastating effect. Then Billy is locked in, and tries go ring her sister Karen who’s in the shower while her boyfriend Andy is getting dinner, but to no avail, and is soon seen and has to flee, after which we get this film’s version of the oft-repeated scene, probably first used in the 1935 version of The 39 Steps, where a person shows police a place where he’d seen skullduggery but it’s now all changed and said person now looks like a fool. Arkadi is there but explains that was shooting a “test” for the film, then the stocking-wearing killer goes to stab Andy but the weapon is retractable. The police dog does sniff a bag at the bottom of the lift shaft where Billy recently was, but instead of containing a body with no head like she was, it has lots of thrown-away food in it. However, that night when everyone has gone, the nightwatchman notices a skull that’s been put in a fire, but is then himself murdered. A detective, Aleksander Larsen, begins looking into Billy’s claim, believing there to be some truth to it, as rumours have been circulating about an international crime ring making and selling snuff films for some time. The plot gives us some further turns and even a couple of twists, one which comes as hardly a surprise, and another which neatly concludes the theme of fakery and fillmic artifice.

The incredible section of Billy trapped in the studio building is virtually a masterclass in how to wring every bit of tension from a situation, seemingly every room in the place being used as Billy sometimes has to hide and be as quiet as possible, some of this release’s artwork being based on a fantastic shot of Billy on the left hand side of the screen in the foreground trying not to be seen while on the right hand side one of the villains is striding down a corridor. And sometimes she has to just run for her life, at one point while either another corridor or the same one slightly distorts in an effect like when James Stewart runs up that tower and looks down in Vertigo. Even afterwards Billy still has to run and hide. Waller would have probably been able to keep up the terror – he certainly keeps up the relentless forward motion – but he chooses to only partially do the former, adding supposed laughs. Most notable is a running gag when all this mayhem repeatedly goes on in one apartment and the elderly couple underneath can’t get any sleep, the situation finally reaching a climax which actually is quite funny, but generally Waller has little skill at merging humour with thrills. When our detective talks about snuff movies and we go in closeup on his face, even his eyes when he mentions seeing the fearful eyes of the victims before they’re killed, it seems like it was intended to be amusing, but we’re not quite sure. I’d have also preferred the climax to emphasise more fear rather action, but none of this ruin the film, which throughout showcases extremely assured filmmaking style, as if Waller had been doing for many years.

Wallace and cinematographer Egon Werdin’s cinematography employs a wide variety of techniques, yet his use of irregular angles, shaky cam movements and tracking shots seem all of one piece, and there are some gorgeous nighttime shots of roads bathed in light and shrouded in dog. Wilbert Hirsch’s musical score is employed at just the right times, ramping up the thrills while often avoiding the cliches you might expect. Graphic violence is far less on view than you’d probably expect, despite the obvious elements of both the slasher film and its Italian cousin the giallo, the latter perhaps being borrowed from a bit more, right down to things revolving around the acts of seeing and remembering. Marina Zudina certainly convinces as Billy, and seems absolutely amazing when compared to Ewan Richards as Andy, who, acting evidently not being one of his skills, opts to perform, n as over a top manner as possible. This distorts many of the scenes that he’s in – which can be really fun and really annoying, depending on your mindset. Out of the Russian actors Sergei Karlenkov as Lyosha makes the most impression because he looks totally out of it – which he actually was according to the director’s commentary. Overall Mute Witness is an impressive achievement. Despite its low budget and limited settings, it verges on looking and feeling like a more expensive production. And it has scenes which are just superbly done.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

 

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS

4K restoration approved by director Anthony Waller
I don’t own an HD Blu-ray player but can give some idea of the picture quality from watching the Blu-ray. It’s simply fantastic for what was such a low budget piece, from flesh tones to image depth to grain management. I reckon that Mute Witness didn’t look too great on video [I honestly don’t remember] or even DVD, largely due to the wide use of brown [a colour which rarely makes for a nice visual experience] and black, but the amount of detail revealed here indicates that the quite consistent use of hues was well thought out, and the blacks seem to exhibit no crush at al. What some viewers may be a bit disappointed in is that there’s a certain softness to the picture, but I didn’t mind it.

4K (2160p) Ultra HD Blu-ray™ presentation in HDR10

Restored original lossless stereo soundtrack

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

Brand new audio commentary by writer/director Anthony Waller
Seeing as information about it is so easily available, I mentioned earlier quite a lor of the things that went on during the making of this film, but Waller, who says that he was going to play Andy [wish he had]  before being talked out of it, describes a few more, most of which I’ll leave the viewer to find out, in his commentary track which has a lot of gaps but which is always interesting when he talks. Stories I will mention are the scene where the studio lights are suddenly switched off at 6 o’ clock being a late addition and being inspired by that actually happening to the filmmakers at 6 every evening, the snuff murder originally being much more graphic, and the steadicam operator falling over and breaking the camera so Waller had to film the bits intended to be shot with it himself on roller-skates. He seems to be understandably proud of the film without actually saying it, but finishes the track with some bad news; there are plans to remake it. He doesn’t say how much he’s involved, or not….

Brand new audio commentary with production designer Matthias Kammermeier and composer Wilbert Hirsch, moderated by critic Lee Gambin
I’ve enjoyed Gambin on other tracks but here he mostly asks questions, in between really highly praising the movie, though said praise seems genuine. Kammermeier does most of the answering, even telling us how Waller got the idea for it; it was from Kammermeier constantly using the same set in the student films that they made together. Some of what he says repeats thing told to us by about when he Waller, but we do here about the original assistant director being fired because she lost the schedule book, plus seeing some sheep on set and being told that their blood was being used as human blood, something which is apparently done on many films. One wonder how the blood was obtained. When Hirsch, who replaced the original composer who fell ill, does go into the music he’s quite interesting but he could have gone more into his conceptualisation and structuring of his score. Nonetheless, a good track, even if the sound isn’t always great; the three were obviously in different places while recording.

The Silent Death, brand new visual essay by author and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, examining “Mute Witness” and its relationship with snuff films [11 mins]
This piece could have done with being longer, seeing as Heller-Nicholas makes some interesting points, most notably mentioning that most mute heroines in previous films were rape sirvivors and Mute Witness‘s subtext really being about women who aren’t heard or believed in a world of male violence. She also points out how previous films, including several gialli, that began with a film within a film tended to reveal the artifice by showing amateurish aspects of the latter, and that Mute Witness‘s beginning sets up its continual question of what’s real and what’s make believe. Heller-Nicholas is as incisive as usual, but doesn’t seem to have time to go in depth into some of the elements that she throws up.

The Wizard Behind the Curtain, brand new visual essay by author and critic Chris Alexander, exploring the phenomenon of the film-within-a-film [23 mins]#
I love it when featurettes bring up movies that I then become very interested in seeing, though, seeing as I like to buy the films I like, it’s not always good for my bank balance. Alexander, in disussing horror-related movies within movies which blur fantasy and reality,  covers the obligatory well known titles, but also describes some little known gems such as The Last Horror Movie [which I highly recommend] and How To Make A Monster, as well as introducing to me something called Effects which I’m going to have ti hunt down. This piece  is very “spoiler-ish”, but then that couldn’t really be helped.

Original “Snuff Movie” presentation, produced to generate interest from investors and distributors, featuring interviews with Anthony Waller and members of the creative team [27 mins]
A bit of the Back To The Future theme begins this piece from 1993, where Waller and a few others tried to sell the concept of the film. They emphasis the film’s commercial prospects and how good they are at what they’re doing, having been honing their craft on a great many advertisements. Hirsch [nice to see him and Kammermeier in person albeit much younger] says that the budget was so low that he couldn’t buy a synthesiser so he built his own, we learn that Waller was by far the youngest person to be accepted into the National Film School, and we see a lot of footage of Waller’s teenage films, which are diverse and interesting.

Original location scouting footage [7 mins]
This  is entirely through a Boston warehouse, but would have been a fine setting.

Original footage with Alec Guinness, filmed a decade prior to the rest of Mute Witness [2 mins]
This is totally unaltered so has poor picture quality.

Teaser trailer

Trailer

Image gallery

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Adam Rabalais

Double-sided foldout poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Adam Rabalais

Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Michelle Kisner

 

A seemingly largely forgotten cheapie Brit thriller is given a great treatment by Arrow. And worth this treatment it is too. Highly Recommended!

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About Dr Lenera 1985 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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