Director: Anthony Waller
Screenplay: Anthony Waller
Starring: Marina Zudina, Fay Ripley, Evan Richards, Oleg Yankovskiy, Igor Volkov, Sergei Karlenkov, Alec Guinness
Country: UK, Russia, Germany
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1995
BBFC Certificate: 18

Anthony Waller started making short films when he was only 11 years old. These were initially animations but, after turning heads at festivals with these, he enrolled into the UK’s National Film School and moved into live-action filmmaking.

His debut feature-length fiction film was Mute Witness. This was devised back in 1985, when Waller was working on commercials and music videos in Germany. It didn’t gain any traction at first so got pushed to the back of his mind for a long while. However, after a couple of chance encounters with Alec Guinness resulted in Waller having a small amount of material of the great actor, some inspiration came to finally get the project off the ground.

The shoot proved to be a nightmare though. In order to save money, it was decided to shift the setting of the film from the US to Moscow. On top of starting the shoot on the same day as the Black October coup, there was a diphtheria outbreak in the city during production. One of the actors playing one of the villains had a terrible drug problem too, so was difficult to work with. Some of the rest of the local cast and crew also reportedly showed up drunk after breaks. Later, the Russian authorities tried to withhold the film once it was in the can, asking for much more money to release it, even though a legal carne had been prepared beforehand. All-in-all the decision to shoot in Moscow was likely regretted.

It would take almost ten years in total, but eventually Mute Witness was released in 1995 to critical acclaim and a modest box office taking for what was a low-budget independent feature.

I can remember some of the positive reviews and the inclusion of Alec Guinness in the cast grabbed my attention back in the late 90s and I caught the film on VHS. I liked it a lot. Sadly, the film soon faded from people’s memories and the DVD went out of print so it threatened to disappear into obscurity. Thankfully, Arrow have resurrected this gem, not only on Blu-ray but on UHD too. There are also talks of a remake, so those that did see the film on its original release clearly held it in high regard.

I got hold of a Blu-ray copy of Arrow’s new release and my thoughts follow.

Mute Witness is set in Moscow, where Billy (Marina Zudina), a talented but mute American makeup artist, works on a cheesy slasher film directed by her sister’s boyfriend, Andy (Evan Richards). Alone after hours to retrieve forgotten supplies, she stumbles across a couple of members of her crew filming a real-life murder, not a staged scene. Billy escapes the studio but not without attracting the attention of the filmmakers who are part of a ruthless arm of the Russian mafia.

Now a target, Billy struggles to communicate the danger to her sister and the authorities who are duped into thinking the filmmakers were staging a scene, not making a ‘snuff’ film. Her disability makes it difficult to convince anyone of the truth, leaving her to fight for her life against a powerful enemy who will stop at nothing to silence the only witness.

Mute Witness thankfully managed to live up to my fond memory of it. The first half is particularly effective, offering an incredibly tense, stripped-back thriller that one might easily call Hitchcockian. With minimal dialogue and expert direction, it’s a real nail-biter.

‘The diskette’ MacGuffin feels a bit tacked on when it suddenly comes into play late in the film though. It helps instigate somewhat of a left turn in the plot that hits a few bumps in the road but ultimately continues to grip the viewer.

What I’d forgotten though was that there’s also quite a lot of comedy in the film, particularly in the second half, when things get a little wilder. Some of the dialogue-driven gags don’t hit the mark (largely when delivered by the annoying Andy character) but a lot of the rest of the touches of humour work a charm, particularly those done visually. The cut from a murder to close-ups of a rare steak being sliced and dollops of ketchup being poured on is a successful gag that springs to mind.

Waller provides a little metaphorical meat to chew on too, exploring whether or not people can determine the difference between real murders and pretend ones. Through the films-within-the-film, Mute Witness examines the audience’s curious relationship with on-screen violence.

The cast is largely effective, with Marina Zudina particularly strong in the lead role. It was a rare (or possibly only) English-language film appearance for the Russian actress but she feels perfectly suited to play the American character of Billy (aided by her lack of dialogue, of course).

As mentioned before, I wasn’t a fan of Evan Richards’ Andy character though. He’s rather annoying whenever on screen but I think that’s intentional and down to the writing rather than the performance. Thankfully he usually shares scenes with Fay Ripley, whose character is more sympathetic and likeable.

The Guinness cameo, which was reportedly unpaid and shot several years before production properly began, was a wild stroke of luck and/or audacity. There are different accounts of this (or I might have misheard during the commentaries) but, from what I can gather, Waller was only in his mid-20s and hadn’t actually had his script OK’d for production yet when he bumped into the actor and cheekily asked him if he’d take a small part in his upcoming film. Guinness agreed but nothing came of it at first. A few years later, Waller bumped into him again at an event in Hamburg, so he asked if he could take the actor up on his promise. Guinness’ agent said he wouldn’t be available for 18 months at least. Waller said could he do it tomorrow morning before Guinness left the city and the agent said OK. The camera, Rolls Royce, crew etc. was hastily assembled and the cameo was shot in only 10 minutes after a lot of hassle delayed the start of the shoot. Waller made the best of the material though, cleverly reusing what he had and mixing that with footage of a double and some overdubbing, allowing for another scene near the end of the film.

All-in-all, Mute Witness may stumble a little as it shifts gears in its second half but, overall, it’s a breathlessly tense and enjoyable thriller with some surprising comic elements. It’s a crying shame it seemed to disappear for so long. Let’s hope this re-release will give it a new lease of life.

Mute Witness is out on 10th June in separate 4K UHD and Blu-Ray editions, released by Arrow Video. I watched the Blu-ray version and the film looks good. There’s a slightly faded (dare I say muted) look to the colours but this might be intentional. Darker scenes are a bit murky too but, again, this might be as the director intended. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review to give you an idead of how it looks, but these have been compressed. I had no issues with the audio.

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS

– 4K restoration approved by director Anthony Waller
– High Definition (1080p) Blu-rayTM presentation or 4K (2160p) Ultra HD Blu-ray™ presentation in HDR10, depending on the version you purchase
– Restored original lossless stereo soundtrack
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Brand new audio commentary by writer/director Anthony Waller
– Brand new audio commentary with production designer Matthias Kammermeier and composer Wilbert Hirsch, moderated by critic Lee Gambin
– The Silent Death, brand new visual essay by author and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, examining Mute Witness and its relationship with snuff films
– The Wizard Behind the Curtain, brand new visual essay by author and critic Chris Alexander, exploring the phenomenon of the film-within-a-film
– Original “Snuff Movie” presentation, produced to generate interest from investors and distributors, featuring interviews with Anthony Waller and members of the creative team
– Original location scouting footage
– Original footage with Alec Guinness, filmed a decade prior to the rest of Mute Witness
– 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

Waller’s commentary is wonderfully honest and detailed, talking about the problems he experienced during production as well as describing some of the techniques used to tell his story. I enjoyed it a great deal.

The other commentary, featuring production designer Matthias Kammermeier and composer Wilbert Hirsch, takes a similarly warts-and-all approach. Some of the same ground is covered but the contributors always have a different spin on things. As such, the pair of commentaries make for a fantastic double act.

Chris Alexander talks about the history of self-referential horror films in his piece. It works best as a compilation of fun films to add to your watchlist. A number of these get ‘spoiled’ though, so if you’re sensitive to this, you might want to give it a miss or be ready to shut your eyes and ears at key points.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas talks about Mute Witness‘ place within the microgenre of films about snuff movies. She spends more time discussing how Mute Witness fits among these than Chris Alexander does about self-referential horror though. Plus, she moves on from this topic to discuss how the film might be read as a feminist statement. It’s a thought-provoking piece.

There’s also an interesting archival presentation video that tries to sell the concept of the film to potential investors. As such, the film focuses largely on the commercial prospects and skills of the crew but it offers a fascinating look at the previous work of some of the key filmmakers. In particular, I loved seeing some of Waller’s early animated films he made as a teenager.

You can view the raw material shot of Alec Guinness, which shows how little the filmmakers had to work with.

There’s also some footage from a location scout back when Waller was considering shooting the film in Boston, Massachusetts. This isn’t particularly interesting, to be honest, so could have been left off the disc but some people might be interested to roughly see how the film might have looked, had they stuck with the original plan.

I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.

Overall, it’s an excellent package for a film that’s ripe for rediscovery. As such, I believe Arrow have released one of the strongest discs of the year, so far.

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About The Author

Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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