June 5, 2024

MUTE WITNESS: What Would De Palma Do?

1995 / 96 min
Review by Josey, the Sudden Cat🙀

Mute Witness is one of those movies that should have gotten more attention upon release than it actually did. Thirty years later, it remains fairly obscure and underseen. Maybe part of the reason is a generic title, or perhaps an overall perception that it’s just another slab of slasher horror. 

Narratively and aesthetically, Mute Witness certainly contains some horror elements, one disturbingly nasty scene in particular. But strip away those genre trappings and you have the kind of twisted concept someone like Brian De Palma would've had a field day with back when he still made good movies. 

Taking place in Russia, the film opens with an amateurish murder sequence, which grows increasingly ridiculous as it goes along. But it turns out to be a scene being shot for a slasher movie by a Russian & American film crew. After wrapping for the night, mute make-up artist Billy (Marina Zudina) returns to the warehouse where the movie’s being shot and gets locked inside. She stumbles upon a few of the crew shooting what appears to be a pornographic sex scene…at least until the woman involved is brutally (and repeatedly) stabbed to death on camera. 

It’s a shocking moment…not necessarily for what it shows, but because until now, the overall tone of the the film has been comparatively light. The next 20-or-so minutes are masterfully suspenseful and tension-filled, with Billy trying to find a way out of the warehouse while evading the killers. When she actually does escape, the police have a hard time believing her story, especially after her pursuers explain the murder was all done with special effects (which they’re able to support with apparent evidence). But being an FX artist herself, Billy knows what she saw. 

This vending machine only dispenses sadness...and Almond Joy
(which are kinda the same thing).
Elsewhere, Detective Larsen (Oleg Yankovsky) has been investigating a mob organization run by “The Reaper” (Alec Guinness, of all people!), who've been making and selling snuff films. To eliminate all loose ends, The Reaper sends his henchmen (including the guys who shot the footage) to find and kill Billy. Meanwhile, Billy’s sister, Karen (Fay Ripley), and bumbling director boyfriend Andy (Evan Richards) attempt to save Billy before the mob finds her. Larsen reaches her first, but Billy isn’t sure she trusts him…nor is the viewer, at this point.

Writer-director Andrew Waller does a tremendous job keeping the narrative motoring along, with plenty of interesting plot turns along the way. Some twists are predictable, others a complete surprise, but all of them work well within the context of the story (even when stretching plausibility at times). He also throws in healthy amounts of humor, especially during the manically paced final act. Though just a tad undermined by a few bland performances, the characters are mostly pretty engaging, especially Billy. Best of all, none of them behave stupidly in order to advance the story (another thing that distinguishes this from your typical slasher film).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Wilbert Hirsch’s wonderful score, which evokes memories of vintage Hitchcock films. Whether or not that’s intentional, it playfully underscores the suspense. So despite its lurid subject matter and a single shocking murder scene (which kinda seems out of place after all is said and done), Mute Witness is a fast-paced, exciting little thriller. De Palma might have made it more stylish, but it's still a hell of a fun film.


NOTE: Free Kittens Movie Guide was provided with a promo disc for review purposes. Physical supplemental material included with the final product (booklets, artwork, inserts, etc) were not available for review.

2 VISUAL ESSAYS - 1) The Silent Death, by author/critic Matthias Heller-Nicholas; 2) The Wizard Behind the Curtain, by author/critic Chris Alexander. Both are quite interesting, related to the film’s somewhat unusual premise/concepts.

2 AUDIO COMMENTARIES - 1) By writer/director Anthony Waller; 2) By production designer Matthias Kammermeier and composer Wilbert Hirsch,

ORIGINAL “SNUFF MOVIE” PRESENTATION - This was used to attract potential investors in the film.


ORIGINAL ALEC GUINNESS FOOTAGE - This was actually shot a full decade before the rest of the film.




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