Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Forgotten 90s horror comedy: Mute Witness (1994)

After last week's brief detour to celebrate John Carpenter's birthday we're back on track with Mute Witness, a deliciously clever thriller written and directed by Anthony Waller (An American Werewolf in Paris). The mid 90s saw string of “self-aware” horror films coming predominately (though not exclusively) from the lens of Wes Craven and the pen of Kevin Williamson. Scream, New Nightmare, Urban Legend, Bride of Chucky all played around with the conventions of slasher horror films and the mechanics of movie making. One of the least mentioned or remembered is Mute Witness, a low budget film that got swept under the carpet in favour of other films with bigger stars.

Mute Witness sees Marina Zudina play Billy, an American make up artist working on a horror film being made on the cheap in Russia. Apart from the director and her sister all of the crew are native Russians with little grasp of English. However this isn't much of a problem for Billy as she is mute anyway. One night, after getting accidentally locked in the studio and she stumbles on a tiny crew working in the basement making an illicit porno. However the situation turns deadly when the scene turns into a snuff movie. When the crew of burly Russians notice Billy they pursue her. Billy escapes the studio but who will believe her story and more importantly how can she tell it when she can't speak!

To tell more of the story would ruin it but rest assured there's many more twists and turns. Apparently Waller's original plan was to set the film in 1930s Chicago but budget restraints forced him to relocate to both modern day Russia. I've got to say the location really helps the atmosphere of the film. Much like An American Werewolf in Paris, the film plays on the inherent creepiness of being lost in the backstreets of a foreign city where you don't speak the language.

I've got to commend Waller on such a fantastic premise too. A witness who can't speak being pursued by group of criminals trying to silence her. It's the kind of thing Alfred Hitchcock would have loved to play around with. Considering some of the subject matter you'd be mistaken for thinking that the film revels in bad taste but actually Waller handles everything very tastefully and wittily. The first signpost is the opening scene in which we see a woman murdered in a bizarre fashion before panning across to see a group of men watching, then slowly revealing we are watching the making of slasher movie.

Maria Zudina makes a good female protagonist, having to use her face to do almost all of the acting. In slasher movies, the female protagonist is always referred to as the 'final girl' and Billy makes for a completely unique variation. One very surprising cameo is made by Alec Guinness, who plays the head of a criminal empire. Waller apparently filmed his cameo in 1985 (ten years before the film was made) in Germany in the hour before Guinness had to catch a plane. Look closely at his second scene and you'll notice that it's just the first scene again with the footage reversed!

The only thing I can say that's bad about the film is that the second half doesn't quite match the greatest of the first half. Hanging the film solely on Billy's muteness means the film has to go to ever increasingly ridiculous situations to keep the thrills going. But there are spots of ingeniousness still to be found such as Billy flashing her pervy peeping tom neighbour to get his attention to help her.

In summary, Mute Witness is a cracking little thriller; witty, scary and exciting in equal measures. It's a shame Waller didn't make more films like this. In terms of recommendations, I'd suggest that anyone who enjoyed the Scream movies or maybe the similar but non-horror F/X: Murder by Illusion would like this film too.

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