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Billy is a mute young woman working the special effects on a low budget horror film in Russia. The language barrier is also shared by her co-workers, the films American director and her sister, who also serves as Billy's on-set translator. While trying to retrieve a prop one night, Billy gets locked into the movie studio. Eventually, she hears the sound of people echoing though the hallways and goes to investigate. She sees one of the grips from the film she's working on filming a masked man having sex with a woman. But, what appears to be an after hours porn film, turns into murder when before her eyes, the masked man stabs the woman to death. No one believes Billy, but an item lost by the men a the scene further jeopardizes Billy and she is wanted by the underground snuff porn ring lead by a man known as The Reaper (cameo by Alec Guinness in his last film role).
Quite simply, Mute Witness, in parts, is a nice textbook on how to make a good suspense film. The film adds layer upon layer to its suspense tone: A protagonist with a disability, great scenes of nail biting because she cant scream, she cant communicate, cannot do the simple vocal things that would save you and I in the same situation. Then, added on top of that is the fact that they are in a foreign country. Not only can she not speak-period, but she cannot speak the language and must rely on her friends, who also cannot speak Russian. So, there is an added flavor of miscommunication and tension when they don't know what anyone is saying.
The film features two suspense sequences that are flat out perfect. Really, they are so good, that the last half of the film suffers from not being able to live up to the tension that is created in these two scenes. The first is Billy evading the snuff filmmakers in the studio. She weaves around corners, hangs precariously in an elevator shaft, must retrieve a key to unlock and exit. For much of this fifteen minute sequence, she must do all of this without being discovered by the suspicious men, who are checking every space to make sure no one is around. I guess this sequence pays the film its greatest compliment in that it is so early in the film, you know she probably makes it out alive, yet it is so masterfully done, you still manage to sweat over her outcome. The second involves Billy in her apartment, the two killers, and like the studio sequence, makes full use of every opportunity available in the confines of her apartment to raise the tension.
Director/writer Anthony Waller (his follow-up to this was the abysmal An American Werewolf in Paris and some, I assume, direct-to-video Bill Pulman flick called The Guilty) clearly has learned a lot from Hitchcock. Like Hitchcock, he tries to find a nice balance of levity along with his scares. Take for example the scene in North By Northwest when James Mason has his muscle get Cary Grant drunk and send him off in a speeding car assuming that he'll surely die on the twisting mountain roads. It is both suspenseful because of the direction, lopsided points of view shots of the car swerving around, and comic because of Grants great drunk performance.
Unfortunately, when it comes to humor, Waller completely fails and it is this point that, for me, makes this a less than perfect film. The characters of Billy's sister and the film director are our comic relief. They might as well wear t-shirts with that fact printed on them because they are just about that subtle. And, I guess just to simply boil it down, they are not funny and their characters veer into comedy that becomes illogical and painful when in contrast with the films delicious suspense. Cary Grant doing a little comedic drunk acting is one thing, dropping Laurel and Hardy in to North By Northwest is another. With all of their bumbling and insipid banter, that is exactly how the sister and director characters feel. As a result, the comedy feels like a pulled punch, too intentional, and only calls attention to itself instead of making an enriching, subtle contrast to the films suspense scares.
The DVD: Columbia
Picture: Anamorphic Letterbox. Image is a little rough an d raw, intentionally, giving a nice gritty look at the decaying Moscow locale, and well as darker look for the suspense. The print does show a little wear however, a minor spot here and there, and some general wear and the contrast could be deeper. The image is a tad soft but okay, and the colors is in adequate shape. No technical quibbles really. An average transfer that cold be improved upon but should suffice for most movie fans.
Sound: English or French Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with optional English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, or Korean subtitles. Actually for a simple 2.0 stereo track it is pretty good. FX has some nice range, like the sound of a butcher knife whipping through the air. The music score is a bit uneven- it works in the suspense scenes but is overdone in the drama and light bits. As I said before, the Russian dialogue is not subtitled which adds a great amount of mystery and thrills to the film.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Trailers for Anatomy, Darkness Falls, Identity
Conclusion: Being barebones and a tad pricey may turn most viewers off. As it is, it is a decent presentation of an interesting thriller that is flawed by some cumbersome comedy but remains entertaining because of some very well done thrills.