What is it that makes a film ‘scary’?
I don’t mean simple jump thrills or a little bit of goose-pimples. What I’m talking about is that tight-chest, metallic taste in the mouth, primal fear that gets a hold of you and doesn’t let go. It’s the kind of anxiety one starts to feel when the car breaks down late at night on the side of the highway, or that tension that mounts when you realize your child is no longer next to you in the grocery store. It’s based off a moment of panic, and let’s face it, film as a medium isn’t always capable of evoking the feelings it shows on screen. Fear and terror are hard to quantify and characterize on film in such a way that their essence is echoed in an audience’s reaction. Over the years, maybe a handful of horror pics have done that for me. Mute Witness is one of them.
The plot to Mute Witness is essentially a pulp-thriller set-up that then quickly spirals out into a series of chase sequences, close calls, and incredibly tense games of cat and mouse. Billy Hughes(Marina Sudina) is an American make-up artist who is working on the production end of a horror film that is shooting in Moscow. She and her twin sister Karen, and Karen’s husband Andy, are all working on the movie, and one night they leave Billy behind because she has production stuff she is catching up on. The set shuts down for the day and Billy is finishing up when she notices that a group of people have entered the building and are using the studio to shoot what she originally believes is an adult film.
After a few moments have gone by, she witnesses a man slash a girl to pieces and she realizes the intruders are making a snuff picture. Billy accidentally alerts the killers to her presence and the first half of the film is a tense chase through the studio in order to survive. The second half of the film reveals how deep this snuff ring goes and the killers set out to find Billy, who might have in her possession an incriminating bit of evidence. In addition to her sister and brother-in-law, Billy also encounters a Moscow cop and a kindly old man, neither of which may be who they say they are.
As the plot goes, that’s it, save for one significant detail: Billy is mute. Her inability to speak is one of the elements of the movie that helps immerse the viewer in the suspenseful universe director Waller is trying to create. We know she cannot scream inside the studio warehouse, so there will be no one to come to her rescue. She is an American and doesn’t speak Russian, but it’s even harder for her because she can’t speak at all. This isolates Billy and makes her all alone. If she will survive the night it will because she is more resourceful than her attackers, more clever and more capable; she never stops improvising in her bid to make it through this alive. As a character she works, and I was rooting for her without ever being sure she would get out of the predicament. Mute Witness finds ways to reward Billy’s ingenuity and pluck without suggesting it needs a happy ending where she survives to do so.
The film is crafted in a spellbinding way. So many things these days that display even a slight bit of tension get slapped with the moniker Hitchcockian. For my money, Mute Witness, while not as strong as a whole, has moments that are undeniably Hitchcockian. For example, take a look at the vast and creepy studio that houses the films first act. It’s a maze of corridors and rooms cluttered with props and there is a creaky elevator that takes you down to a stygian furnace where the killers have found a place to discreetly dispose of their bodies.
Now imagine that Billy is our primary viewpoint to this setting. She moves cautiously along the sides of walls, and just behind doors, while out of her line of sight there may be a dark figure lurking. The killers aren’t shadows but real people, and Witness provides their perspective as well while they hunt Billy. The whole thing is laid out with a choreography that creates dramatic escalation every time the view switches from Billy to her pursuers. It’s a frightening choice. When she does finally escape, the dark Moscow streets hold an air of menace and mystery and everything we see in the second half cannot be trusted. It puts the audience on edge, and it seems unlikely Billy will emerge from this new danger unscathed.
There is a friendly and familiar face that shows up in the movie. It’s Sir Alec Guiness and at first I was happy to see Old Ben; I assumed he would make quite an ally for Billy. However, isn’t long before it appears he might be running the entire crime syndicate. But it’s never clear for a long time exactly where his allegiance lies. The movie turns on moments like this often. It’s a skillful horror film that operates mostly as a wind-up toy.
Witness has been sculpted in a believable and plausible reality and then it unfurls sequences of extreme duress and tension. I felt worn out after every ordeal Billy goes through, and exhausted at the prospect she might just be moving into another trap. When the film finally ends, I still wasn’t relieved, but was grateful for a respite. There is also a significant amount of humor in the film, but as with Hitchcock’s best, it is placed with thought and wisdom. It never undermines the suspense or thrill of a scene, but it is inserted occassionally as a breather before we are submerged once more into the dark, flooded tunnels of the story.
I highly recommend Mute Witness as a suspenseful experience and as a horror film. It operates perfectly as both, and in the second half it even takes on the trappings of a dark espionage thriller. The director Anthony Waller showed great promise with this material, but later went on to direct the sputtering horror comedy American Werewolf in Paris. That film was a mess, but this one becomes everything it needs to be. Each hallway is filled with an eerie anticipation of the macabre and the night streets hold villains at every corner. The audience is not spared Billy’s fate as she runs about the city fleeing for her life and eventually she becomes its only hope of salvation. If there is one person in this crummy pic that can figure a way to defeat the bad guys it’s the little mute make-up artist.