Mute Witness

tn_mutewitnessThere was once a promising new director on the scene named Anthony Waller. This was the ’90s, the Miramax Dynasty, when Hollywood executives searched for promising young directors like prospectors looking for gold, and here’s this Lebanese born British guy who independently made a well reviewed thriller called MUTE WITNESS. Not too arty either, real energetic, funny, violent. Pretty commercial. They scooped him up, signed him on to direct AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, and for some reason nobody ever talked about him again. Weird.

Okay, he shouldn’t have made that sequel, but actually it had some moments. I always meant to see MUTE WITNESS, but never did until now. So let me be the very last to say “this kid shows promise!”

mp_mutewitnessMarina Zudina plays Billy, an American makeup artist working on a horror movie in Russia. And as the title says, she’s mute. Not deaf, just mute, and don’t worry, there’s no traumatic backstory tying everything together and then she learns to speak at the end or some shit like that. She just can’t talk, end of story.

Anyway, one night when the studio where they’re filming gets closed down she goes back in because she forgot to grab a mask she needs to work on. And nobody realizes she’s there so she gets locked inside the building. She tries calling her sister (Fay Ripley) on the phone and tapping out a message, but there’s a misunderstanding and her sister doesn’t get that she’s trapped.

So where does the “witness” come in? When she sees some of the guys from the studio filming a porno that turns into a snuff movie. This is a bad day for Billy. To add insult to injury the killer in the snuff movie is wearing her mask! Fucking snuff guys, no respect for other people’s property. Haven’t you always found that to be true? Not trying to generalize here but fuck those snuff guys. I’m against them. I know that’s not politically correct but I’m like Carlos Mencia, I just say what you’re thinking but you’re afraid to say, and sometimes using the same words Billy Cosby used.

Anyway, these snuff assholes hear her and it turns into a tense cat and mouse type deal… two cats trying to catch a mouse who cannot talk. A mute mouse, that’s the gimmick. It’s a game of hide and seek through dark tunnels, cluttered sound stages, storage rooms, elevator shafts, fire escapes. I thought this might be the whole movie (it might’ve worked), but the plot switches up a couple times. She finds herself trying to convince the police what happened, but the perps are good at covering their tracks and she’s got a serious language barrier to climb over. She speaks sign language to her sister, who speaks English to the Russians, and then the Russians try to explain to her how movies are made. But of course she knows what looks real and what looks fake – that’s her job.

Waller milks all kinds of tension out of this idea that she’s seen too much and is in danger but can’t convince anybody. And just trying to communicate is a struggle, so how many times can she try before giving up? A mute heroine in a movie like this is also interesting because she’s getting chased all over and not screaming. You’re not used to seeing that. She tries to scream, but can’t. You wish she could. And of course it’s kind of a self reflexive type deal too because you’re a mute witness watching a movie. You can’t say anything to help. (Deep, huh? I thought of that. That’s just how I am.)

Billy’s sister’s husband (boyfriend?) (Evan Richards) is a funny character. He’s the director of their movie and who knows if he’s talented. But he’s some kind of spoiled son of a producer or executive or something, with a serious sense of entitlement. I laughed whenever he tried to pull the “I’m a director” card. Dude, these people kill for a living. They sell snuff films to rich, powerful sickos. They are corrupt cops and government officials, deep in the Russian crime underworld. They’re not impressed that you’re making a dumb horror movie. They’re past that, I’m thinking.

You know what is impressive though: fucking Alec Guinness is in this movie! Apparently it’s his last theatrical film. I forgot he was even alive then so when I saw his cameo I thought “geez, that guy looks like Alec Guinness.” It didn’t even occur to me it was the genuine article or that that’s why he has such a dramatic reveal, his face first hidden in shadows and then he leans into the light. Funny thing is, Waller apparently got him to shoot the scene many years earlier as some kind of favor, and when it came out Guinness read the reviews and swore he wasn’t in the movie and never heard of it before.

I think the tone of the movie is a little off balance because it’s only in the back end that the director/brother-in-law weiner really gets sucked into the action, so then it becomes much more jokey than it had been. It made me laugh though, some good stuff where they’re fighting some killers to the death and the old man in the apartment downstairs is pissed off about the noise.

It’s a real solid and enjoyable thriller. I guess I can understand its forgotten status – it would get more attention if the guy had gone on to make a bunch more movies. But he clearly has some chops. I wouldn’t be surprised if he popped up again some day.

Thanks to Jake for recommending this one.

This entry was posted on Sunday, October 25th, 2009 at 11:41 pm and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Responses to “Mute Witness”

  1. I think that’s one of these movies, whichs VHS/DVDcover has everybody seen a million times, but not the movie itself. At least in my case it’s true. I had no idea what the movie was about (okay, I guessed it was about a mute woman who witnessed a murder. Turns out I was right.) or if it’s any good, but the cover of it follows me everywhere. Maybe I should finally check it out. Sounds more interesting than I thought.

  2. Wait a second, I just read on imdb that Anthony Waller was the “director” of “Als die Liebe laufen lernte 2”! That’s a compilation of the legendary German “sex education” movies from the 60’s and 70’s.
    That was an interesting subgenre, because to make not just a quick buck from the sexual revolution, but also to pretend that they aren’t filth, some producers put a narrator into their softpornos, who would say stuff like “now the penis punctures the hymen” and explain what a hymen is during the sex scenes. And then back in the 80’s some other producers made a compilation of the “best” scenes from all these movies.
    An interesting career. From compiling German educational softporn, to an apparently acclaimed thriller, to a bad sequel of a classic, to oblivion. (Although it seems like he has two new movies coming out soon.)

  3. I remember the cover to this movie used to creep me out whenever I saw it in a video store as a kid

  4. I rented this one when it came out on VHS some fifteen years ago. Liked it half, at the time. The half I liked was roughly the idea and the lead actress, the half I didn’t like was it’s clumsiness (production value). These day’s I’m much more in favour of the lower budget slash indipendent movies. So perhaps I should watch it again. It’s still in the video rental shop.

  5. I saw this the day it came out on video. (In Cleveland, Ohio there wasn’t much of an arty-horror scene.) I remember being really blown away by it and thinking that it was such a cool idea. I can’t remember the end part with the director at all, but I am going to find it to show my wife. She and I are going through all the movies we ever liked when we were younger, but the other never saw. I had forgotten this one, but as soon as I saw that you reviewed it I though, “Man, I should have suggested that one. I’d feel cool.” I saw this on a double bill with Public Access, the Brian Singer debut. I think you reviewed that one already though, so I am ass-out. As always, great stuff Vern!

  6. I love this movie, especially the crazy tense cat and mouse part in the first half. Plus, I’ve never been as surprised in a movie as when Obi Fuckin Wan Kenobi shows up for an uncredited cameo in an low budget thriller about snuff films. It was a great “am I high, or did that just really happen” moment. I also remember receiving a post card in the mail promoting the film. I don’t think I have received another promo postcard before or since, and this was before the days of pinpoint marketing, so I don’t know how the hell I got on the mailing list.

  7. I saw it in a movie theater when it came out and i liked it a lot. But when i saw it again on VHS i found out that they cut the cat and mouse scene at the beginning. They trim it a little bit and the VHS is not letterbox so a lot of that chase scene didn’t really work out on VHS because you lost the edges of the screen where a lot of the action takes place. Anyway i like it. And Waller did a movie call Guilty or something with Bill Pullman and that dude Devon Sawa. It was a not so good thriller with a twist at the end.

  8. Glad you liked it, Vern. I would agree that the tone is sort of off-balance and the first half is maybe a bit more solid than the second half. Though I do generally tend to like movies that switch it up like that. I really like the ones that just shift gears in the middle and go off into completely different genres. Not that this one does. I might have liked it even more if it did though.

    I hope you are right and he does pop up again. I didn’t realize he did AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS. Maybe I’ll give that one a shot.

    I agree with you, Griff. That cover, along with the one of the girl who has nothing at all to do with DEAD ALIVE pulling her mouth open, were probably the two that stuck with me most from childhood trips to the video store.

  9. The mute thing made me want to read that Harlan Ellison short story, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream again.

    On paper, it would seem like a good idea to make a movie out of it but that’s just on paper. In reality someone would just fuck it up.

  10. Hey hamslime, have you ever seen the ‘interactive fiction’ version (okay, it’s a video game) of I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream? It’s brilliant. Atmospheric, intelligent, creepy, mature and really tense… I think it’s among the best adaptations of anything into something else ever. Probably because Ellison was very much involved with it. He even voiced AM. But to be fair to shittier adaptations, it’s actually more of an extension of the story than a straight retelling.

    Check it:

  11. I haven’t played it but I did see it on the Youtube shortly after I wrote the above comment. The game itself looks kind of like Monkey Island which I think is pretty tedious. Someone also put up a fake movie trailer for it and after seeing that I take back what I said about making a movie based on it. I am now certain that whoever does it will fuck it up.

  12. yup, this was one of those movies that you always see the cover of whenever you went into a video store back in the 90’s

  13. I just watched this one and thought it was fantastic. Vern, awhile ago you mentioned your friends who do a podcast about suspense movies, The Suspense is Killing Us, so I checked it out and have been making my way through their catalog for awhile now. When they got to the episode where they talked about this one they raved so much in introducing it that I turned if off, bought the dvd from Amazon (because it’s not streaming anywhere), and watched it before finishing the episode. It’s great. It’s such a simple, little movie with non-stop suspense. The conceit of her being mute and then on top of that being in a foreign country adds to the suspense in such a perfect way. I couldn’t believe how long and well choreographed the cat and mouse scene after she witnesses the murder went on for. It was a joy to watch a character be in this totally bananas situation and come out at The Most Competent Woman in the World. I don’t care in the least that she should maybe not be that competent in out maneuvering them.

    I loved the minor twists and turns and suddenly the sister and her boyfriend are adding goofy comedy bits. So often that kind of thing could be annoying, but I found it delightful in this one. And it was non-stop thrills (how’s that for a movie poster blurb) right up to the very end.

    Anyway, I loved this one and everyone who hasn’t seen it should try to find a copy, since it’s not streaming anywhere. Definitely worth the hassle of tracking one down. They really should re-release it.

  14. I’m glad you liked it! Yeah, this is a good one that not enough people know about. If there’s not some rights issue it would be perfect for Arrow or one of those labels to revive.

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