Mute Witness Review
Mute Witness is one of those films that will probably pass under your radar unless you are a genre fan or stumble across it by accident. This is a shame, because it is a tightly constructed suspense thriller that uses its limitations to great advantage.
Billy Hughes (played by Marina Zudina, who is miscredited as "Marina Sudina" in the film's credits) is an American make-up artist working on a low budget slasher movie being filmed in Moscow by her brother-in-law Andy. Billy is a mute, and although she can understand what is being said, her only means of communication is through sign language. The only person on the set who can follow sign language is her sister Karen. One night, Billy is accidentally locked on the set, where she encounters two crew members filming what appears to be a porn movie. When the woman participating in the action is suddenly brutally murdered, Billy finds herself in an extremely dangerous situation, locked in a large studio with two men who will have no qualms about killing her.
Director Anthony Waller, who is guilty of helming the woeful An American Werewolf in Paris, had been planning this film for nearly a decade before it was finally shot. Original drafts set the action in Chicago, but the decision was made to move the location to Moscow, where the film could be made for much less money. Ironically, the move to Russia has an extremely positive impact on the script, because it introduces a great deal of communication difficulties. Billy is a mute who can only understand English; Karen and Andy can only speak English; and the rest of the crew can only speak Russian. The location ends up becoming a highly successful narrative device, so much so that it is almost impossible to imagine what the film would have been like if set in Chicago.
A good deal of the appeal of the film is due to Marina Zudina's charisma. She tackles the difficult subject of a character who is unable to make any vocal sounds, and is required to convey her fear through facial expressions alone. She is in fact a Russian actor, but due to her lack of dialogue she has no problem portraying an American. She is apparently quite famous in her native Russia, but is virtually unknown outside it. According to her IMDB profile, she has featured in nothing beyond 1996, which is a great shame, because she is obviously extremely talented.
Mute Witness is an incredibly tense affair, with a superb chase sequence taking up most of the first half of the movie. The tension maintained during this sequence would have made even Hitchcock proud, with Billy playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse, just avoiding being caught on several occasions. The photography is of an incredibly high standard, with the 2.35:1 frame used to great effect.
It is in the second half of the film that the standards begin to drop. A lot of this is due to the fact that Waller tries to do too many things. The stalk sequences worked because they were simple but expertly choreographed and filmed. In the second half, however, Waller introduces many unneccessary elements, attempting to create a complex conspiracy out of a relatively simplistic plot. This espionage angle is overly complicated and clumsily handled. The number of inane plot twists that get thrown into the fray in the final moments make the ending seem like a farce when compared to what preceeded it.
Another problem is with the characters of director Andy and his wife Karen. They provide the comic relief, and they do so at wholly inappropriate moments, often detracting from the suspense of Billy's plight. What made An American Werewolf in Paris so thoroughly painful to watch was its bizarre and often forced comedy that clashed with the horror elements. It is exactly the same here, only to a lesser degree. In another film the comedy might have worked (that's not a promise), but here it spoils the tone and is completely unneccessary.
Although it has its flaws, Mute Witness never completely falls apart. There are moments that feel as if they belong in a different film, but the incredible amount of tension in the superb chase sequence more than makes up for it. Although perhaps not worthy of repeated viewings, it is definitely worth seeing once.
Mute Witness is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image is somewhat lacking in definition and has a muddy, grey look to it. The colours seem a little desaturated, and the look of the whole thing is decidedly hazy. Worse still, around half way through the film, the transfer switches from progressive to interlaced, which is incredibly annoying for viewers with progressive scan equipment, and reduces detail substantially. Until that happens, the look of the transfer is acceptable but not exactly pleasing. The contrast is the real problem here, since much of the film takes place in semi-darkness, and shadows have a habit of looking grey rather than black.
This is a single layer disc, with an average bit rate of 5.10 Mbps, but I doubt that a higher bit rate would have helped. All in all, although the results are certainly watchable, this is most disappointing.
The audio is presented in Dolby Surround 2.0, with a choice of English and French. The original theatrical mix was stereo, so this is a relatively basic affair. There is some nice channel separation between the left and right front speakers, but sadly the audio sounds quite thin and strained. Given the low budget nature of Mute Witness, this was perhaps to be expected.
The menu design is basic and uninspired, with no transitions, animation or audio of any kind, but at least it is functional. In a bare bones release such as this, the lack of flare in menu design is probably not all that surprising.
Columbia Tristar have done a good job with the packaging, choosing to use the striking theatrical poster for the front cover. Amusingly, the blurb on the back makes a great deal of Alec Guinness' appearance, despite the fact that he is uncredited in the film and only appears for a couple of minutes at most.
This is a bare bones release in every sense of the world. In terms of supplemental material, all that is included is a set of three trailers, and their connection with Mute Witness is tenuous at best. Considering that the inclusion of these trailers is nothing more than advertising, it's as good as nothing.
The poor image quality and lack of special features on this release makes the recommended retail price of $24.95 (US) nothing short of outrageous. However, this is the first time Mute Witness has been released on DVD, and it's highly unlikely that we're going to see a more substantial release any time soon, so given the high standard of the film, the price might be worth it. It's a shame that a gem like this has not been given better treatment, but given its relative lack of notoriety this should not come as too much of a surprise.