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  • Benjamin May

Mute Witness (1995) Review

Billy Hughes is a mute, American make-up artist working on a low-budget slasher in Moscow, directed by her sister’s boyfriend. One night, Billy stays later than usual, looking for a prop. She isn’t the only one on set, though, as she discovers to her horror. She stumbles upon members of the crew, who are making a snuff film. A frantic chase ensues. Will Billy be able to escape the killers and- if she does- will anyone believe her story?

Written and directed by Anthony Waller, ‘Mute Witness’ is a tension filled thrill-ride that will have viewers gripped from the get-go. A low-budget affair, it brims with suspense, and is genuinely frightening, though also contains moments of black humour. Waller’s narrative is absorbing, despite a weak third act and a rushed ending, containing many unexpected moments of pure petrifying power. Billy, whose struggles to communicate compounds the dread, is a perfect conduit for the audience, as Waller takes us on a journey into fear.

In some ways, it is like Joel Schumacher’s ‘8mm’ and John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ had a cinematic child; and is just as gruesome as that sounds. Intense and engrossing, it goes in directions one doesn’t expect. Although the secondary characters aren’t particularly well-written, and some of the dialogue is very stilted, Billy is compelling. We feel for her: isolated in a foreign country, unable to communicate, stalked by murderous thugs- her struggle to survive is engaging. At least, until the third act, when things descend, becoming rather mundane.

The best horrors are usually the ones that make effective use of sound design- such is the case with ‘Mute Witness.’ Noises- the scraping of a knife on a hard surface, the splatter of blood, footsteps in the dark- create agitation and alarm, while the use of silence heightens the suspense. Furthermore, Egon Werdin’s cinematography is eerily atmospheric. His use of irregular angles, shaky cam movements and tracking shots evokes fear and creates tension.

Werdin also makes brilliant use of the sets and locations in the film, employing the lighting team to ominous effect. The shadow-play and utilisation of contrasts makes for a sinister looking picture, while the production design is of a high quality. Moreover, Peter R. Adam’s editing is most effective, making a macabre mosaic of a movie, stitching scenes together with a rhythm that mirrors the viewer’s racing heartbeat.

Unfortunately, despite the technical expertise behind the camera, those in front disappoint. Although Marina Zudina does strong work as Billy, effectively displaying her fear and agitation silently, her co-stars let her down. As the director, Evan Richards delivers a shockingly hammy performance, seemingly hell bent on chewing as much scenery as he can. Fay Ripley does better than him in the role of Billy’s sister, but still doesn’t impress much, coming across as quite wooden.

Oleg Yankovskiy is good in a small role as a policeman, deserving of more screen time, while Igor Volkov and Sergei Karlenkov are terrific when silent and unconvincing when not. Furthermore, Alec Guinness- who thought the production was a student film and did not accept, nor was offered, payment for his services- is terrific, for the few seconds he’s on screen. Blink and you’ll miss him, in this case, is too generous, as even if you don’t blink, you might miss him.

Despite a tepid third act, Anthony Waller’s ‘Mute Witness’ is a tense and sinister horror that rockets along at a brisk pace. Boasting striking cinematography from Egon Werdin and creepily atmospheric sound design, it is a stirring picture. However, while it is well-edited and Marina Zudina does strong work as Billy, the supporting cast don’t all impress- with Evan Richards’ misjudged, over the top performance hampering the film’s impact. Despite that, though, ‘Mute Witness’ is not a film you’ll want to keep quiet about.


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