3 out of 5 stars

Thrillers are among cinema’s most enduring and entertaining genres. Audiences enjoy being gripped by a suspenseful mystery and experiencing chilling twists and turns. The 1990s produced a plethora of respected classics, now considered timeless masterpieces. Notable filmmakers such as David Fincher (Seven), Michael Mann (Heat), and David Lynch (Lost Highway) left their mark on the genre and ensured its continued success into the new millennium.

However, the decade was also responsible for some of the genre’s most criminally underrated entries. A wildly understated thriller that’s frequently overlooked is Anthony Waller’s expertly crafted directorial debut, Mute Witness. Proving to be an underrated gem from the decade, Mute Witness is an exemplary piece of filmmaking filled with suspenseful twists and sardonic humour.

Billy Hughes (Marina Zudina) is an acute special effects technician working on an American production being filmed in Moscow. After an unproductive day under the control of director Andy Clarke (Evan Richards) and assistant director Karen Hughes (Fay Ripley), the crew leave for the evening. While trying to retrieve some equipment for the following day, Billy is inadvertently locked inside the studio overnight. When her attempts to communicate with Karen are interrupted by the sound of people echoing through the hallways, she begins to investigate the building. As she discovers a small crew making an illicit pornographic movie in the basement, Billy privately enjoys her own act of surveillance. 

Amusement eventually curdles into terror when the male actor reveals a knife and brutally murders the female participant. When a pair of killers discover they have a witness, Billy is forced to flee from the perpetrators. The young woman manages to escape the building, but no one wants to believe she witnessed a murder. The authorities and her friends are all convinced it was a staged murder. However, a malevolent overseer of a pornography and prostitution ring orders the unwanted witness to be eliminated immediately. As Billy becomes increasingly fixated on uncovering the truth, the lines between friend and foe become increasingly blurred.

Navigating a treacherous web of deceit and manipulation, Marina Zudina (Valentin I Valentina) delivers a credible performance as Billy. She portrays her character’s tumultuous emotions convincingly, with the buoyant animation of a silent-era star, conveying a wealth of information through her facial expressions. Her beautifully large eyes are profoundly expressive, communicating her character’s isolation and terror more effectively than words ever could. Reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s performance as the blind heroine in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967), Zudina is vivacious, and her inability to speak is somehow far from a victimising handicap. She is intelligently resourceful, continuously demonstrating her ability to adapt and improvise in demanding situations.

Unfortunately, Anthony Waller was excommunicated from the mainstream following An American Werewolf In Paris (1997), which is a shame because Mute Witness is a remarkably confident directorial debut. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock are inescapable, but unlike most imitators, Waller adheres to the genre conventions to service his narrative rather than his influences. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, a conspicuous dolly zoom during a chase sequence could easily become an obnoxious reference to Vertigo (1958).

However, such techniques are implemented to serve as a wonderful indexical expression of subjective panic and desperation. Perhaps the most overt homage to the ‘Master of Suspense’ is a wonderfully traumatic imagining that occurs inside Billy’s apartment. As she rests comfortably in her bathtub, a deceased woman appears with her hands pressed against the window. Paralleling the iconic shower sequence in Psycho (1960), the scream of the apparition is amplified to an almost assaultive level. The technique jarringly disrupts the supposed normalcy of the setting while mirroring the protagonist’s escalating volatility. It’s an accomplished moment of horror amongst a bounty of suspense.

In contrast to Hitchcock’s timeless classics, Mute Witness hinges on the tension created by the clash between truth and fiction. The film starts as a drama but gradually develops into a suspenseful thriller that explores our ability to distinguish between genuine horror and staged violence. It’s an examination of perception, questioning whether it can be manipulated to distort the truth. Waller swiftly establishes familiar horror tropes, entertaining audiences by exposing the absurdity of filmmaking artifice.

During the metafictional prologue, we assume the perspective of a deranged voyeur prowling outside a woman’s apartment. After entering the property, the ominous killer attacks the innocent victim with a knife, subsequently piercing her flesh several times. The wounded woman makes a spectacle of herself by demolishing her surroundings in the throes of mortal agony. As the murderer saunters into the corner to admire his achievement, a host of sniggering crew members are gradually revealed. 

These lighthearted sequences spiral inexorably into something reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012). Billy’s reality is gaslit into fantasy when she’s unable to convince the authorities of what she witnessed, as her colleagues claim the murder never happened. The viewer questions the trustworthiness of those around her as the culprits construct an elaborate scheme to mitigate her suspicions. Simple exchanges with sympathetic police officers morph instantly into terrifying interactions with potential gangsters. Whereas harmless filmmaking equipment could be swiftly replaced with life-threatening weapons. The anticipation of something terrible happening to Billy is palpable, but the prospect of her entering a trap is unbearable. Waller continuously obscures the audience’s perception of reality and fiction, methodically increasing the foreboding atmosphere before the perplexing climax.

This atmosphere of existential paranoia and incorrigible suspicion is reflected in the insidiously effective setting. Originally, the screenplay was situated in Chicago during the prohibition when criminal organisations temporarily replaced local law enforcement agencies. After the production was shelved due to budgetary constraints, Waller relocated to Russia to capitalise upon low-cost sets and labour. This proved to be an ingenious strategy because the bureaucratic and menacing environment heightens the sense of isolation and helplessness. Inside the dilapidated buildings, Waller stages some impeccably choreographed chase sequences. He takes full advantage of the building’s internal geography, gradually transforming the film studio into a menacing labyrinth. The labyrinthine corridors seem inescapable and provide no respite during Billy’s relentless escape. Whereas the omnipresent shadows of her pursuers serve as a constant reminder of the potential danger lurking around the corner.

Sadly, Waller appears unsatisfied with his perfectly serviceable screenplay and overstuffs his delicious thriller by introducing what is presumably unused material from his original draft. Despite establishing itself as a suspenseful horror, Mute Witness rewrites itself as a conspiracy thriller in the latter stages of its 95-minute runtime. An international criminal organisation and espionage subplot, complete with a stolen disc and a duplicitous detective (Oleg Yankovsky), are introduced without a clear explanation. Although the narrative never loses pace, each outlandish situation feels somewhat convoluted and clashes with the tone of the first half. In an attempt to outwit the audience, Waller dilutes the impact of his otherwise carefully crafted suspense.

Despite its narrative missteps, Mute Witness remains a thoroughly engaging cinematic experience. Anthony Waller’s directorial debut is a breathlessly exciting and atmospherically intimidating thriller. Drawing inspiration from iconic filmmakers such as Hitchcock and De Palma, his direction is both assured and innovative, showcasing his capacity for expertly building tension.


frame rated divider arrow video

Limited Edition 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Special Features:

For the first time in the UK, Mute Witness has been given a wonderful 4K restoration courtesy of Arrow Video. Showcasing a 2160p Ultra HD transfer that was approved by writer-director Anthony Waller, the image is presented in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio.

After being relegated to a DVD-only release, the quality of this transfer is impressive. The level of detail is sublime, and viewers will appreciate its ability to showcase even the finest textures. Flesh tones appear natural, and facial complexions are clear, revealing almost every hair and the minutest blemish on Billy’s face. Individual patterns and threads in clothing are discernible under various lighting conditions.

The majority of Mute Witness was filmed at night on the gloomy streets of Moscow, and the image retains a very dark look throughout. However, the image remains stable, enhancing shadows and other elements. The film grain is beautifully rendered, and there are no noticeable fluctuations in noise. There are no significant stability issues to report, with damage marks and debris having been removed as far as possible. Overall, the picture boasts a substantial improvement and looks considerably better than the previous DVD release.

Sadly, the 4K Ultra HD release of Mute Witness only includes one audio track with optional English subtitles. However, it’s worth noting that Arrow has commendably restored the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 lossless audio track. While the track prioritises dialogue, there’s a surprising amount of dynamism in the midrange. Wilbert Hirsch’s (An American Werewolf in Paris) haunting score is beautifully rounded and fills the soundstage during key moments. Meanwhile, environmental cues create an immersive atmosphere and are cleverly dispersed throughout the channels. Action effects, including gunshots and shattered glass, are amplified for impact, remaining predominantly at the rear.

  • 4K restoration approved by director Anthony Waller.
  • High Definition (1080p) Blu-rayTM presentation.
  • 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, a 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, a 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 before the rest of Mute Witness.
  • Teaser 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.
frame rated divider

Cast & Crew

writer & director: Anthony Waller.
starring: Marina Zudina, Fay Ripley, Evan Richards & Alec Guinness.