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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Mute Witness (1994)

"She can't speak. She can't scream. She can't beg for mercy."
- Tagline

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: September 29, 2003

Stars: Marina Sudina
Other Stars: Fay Ripley, Evan Richards, Oleg Jankowskij
Director: Anthony Waller

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: R for violence and a strong scene combining sex and violence
Run Time: 01h:36m:23s
Release Date: August 26, 2003
UPC: 043396078789
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Mute Witness is an example of what a good director can do to make you forget about a low budget and limited actors. It takes place mostly at night, in a shabby Russian film studio and a few apartments in Moscow, but writer/ director Anthony Waller turns the bargain basement production values into a boon, creating a suspenseful cat-and-mouse thriller that borrows liberally from everything from Halloween to Wait Until Dark, yet still manages to earn respect with genuine shocks and scares.

Three years before Scream popularized self-reflexive horror, Mute Witness begins with an opener straight out of Halloween—we see a murder through the eyes of a masked killer—that turns out to be nothing more than a scene in a movie. Throughout, Waller plays with the reality and illusion of filmmaking and special effects, and we're never sure if what we're seeing is really happening or not. The hero is Billy (Marina Sudina), a young mute working as the make-up artist on a low-budget horror film shooting in Russia (likely to save money—thankfully Waller used the location to his advantage and didn't try to pretend the studio was in the States). Her brother-in-law (Evan Richards) is the director, frustrated by his difficulties communicating with his Russian cast and crew.

One night, Billy stays late to work and is locked in the studio. She tries to call her sister (Fay Ripley) and tap on the receiver for help, but they don't get the message (miscommunication is another key theme). She wanders around looking for an exit and stumbles across some of the crew working late to film a very different kind of movie. Billy witnesses the filming of the climax of a snuff film and tries to run, but of course, she has to do something to draw attention to herself (she's mute, so she can't scream—instead she knocks something over).

The next hour follows Billy around the studio as she tries to escape the murderers, and there are some original set pieces that make good use of both the film-within-a-film conceit (misleading props trigger a number of scares for Billy and the audience) and the sets—the original setting was Chicago, but Waller changed it to Russia when he discovered how much cheaper it would be to shoot there—and the run-down studio is kept in the dark and the labyrinth of corridors and tunnels look appropriately grimy and desolate.

Once Billy escapes the studio (barely) we discover another reason for the Russian setting—people there are desperate and easily bought, and it is where a man like the Reaper (no less than Alec Guinness in a 30-second cameo) can fund a snuff film industry and pay the police to look the other way. Billy goes to the cops, and they conveniently can't find the dead woman's body. But the Reaper sends more men after her—something to do with an important disc that the first victim stole. The specifics don't matter; the change in setting allows Waller to construct more quirky set pieces, including a tense scene in Billy's apartment involving a computerized speakerphone that talks a little too slowly to be understood by the Russian police.

Mute Witness isn't a great film, but it's a smart one, and it operates well within the genre. Billy isn't an idiotic victim, she's intelligent and proactive. The scares more or less veer away from fake shocks and cheap gore. But there is a lot that doesn't work, too—Billy's sister and her husband serve as the comic relief, and they're written and acted too broadly. Instead of offering a cathartic break from the suspense, they distract. But mostly, Waller has done a good job making a low-budget film about low-budget filmmakers that feels like more than what it is.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Columbia TriStar has once again delivered a fine transfer for a catalog title (thank goodness they decided to deliver this scope film in widescreen, because the director uses every corner of the frame). The image looks a little grainy and soft, betraying the low budget, but the level of detail is good enough, and the gritty look suits the atmosphere quite well. The print shows occasional wear, but nothing too significant—just some lines and flecks during the opening credits, mostly. Colors appear balanced and intentionally muted, and I didn't notice any undue artifacts or edge enhancement (though there is some occasionally distracting aliasing).

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: This isn't a bad track for a simple 2.0 mix. Dialogue is generally crisp, though a few scenes suffer from obvious ADR. The music is also a bit of a mixed bag. It works well during the more low-key, suspenseful moments, but then it will blare out during a jump scare and sound distorted. Otherwise, though, the front-heavy mix uses the limited sound field creatively, heightening the tension with directional effects and decent stereo separation. The surrounds are mostly silent, but they are put to good use in a few key scenes (including the opening Halloween homage).

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Darkness Falls, Identity, Anatomy
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Aside from a trailer gallery with spots for three horror/ suspense flicks, Mute Witness is a bare-bones catalog title.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Mute Witness surprised me. The cover art promises a trashy thriller, but the film delivers much more. Anthony Waller's script injects reflexive humor and genuine innovation into a tired genre, and his careful direction draws maximum suspense and entertainment from the low budget and B-level cast. It's a true sleeper—not a great film, but more than quirky and nuanced enough to please genre fans.


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