Saturday, May 30, 2009

#62: Mute Witness (Anthony Waller, 1994)

I had low expectations for this movie. The only other Anthony Waller-directed movie I've seen is An American Werewolf in Paris, which is one of the flattest, most inert, least visually interesting movies of recent years, too boring even to be terrible. Mute Witness, on the other hand, though overly slick and perfunctory in visual style, is a suspenseful, skillfully told, entertaining film that successfully balances both the horror and crime thriller genres and a dramatic and comedic tone.

The storyline's not half bad. An American film crew is shooting a terrible slasher movie on the cheap in a Moscow studio. (Life imitating entertainment: the film's original script was set in Chicago, but the location was changed to Moscow because the sets and labor were much cheaper in Russia.) The main character is Billy, a mute woman who is the special effects artist (played by Russian actress Marina Zudina). Her sister is along, too, because she's dating the director, a spoiled doofus whose father has powerful political connections. After the day's shooting ends and the cast and crew start heading home, Billy runs back in the studio to find a prop they'll need for the next day's shooting. She's accidentally locked in and, because she's mute, can't get anybody's attention to let her out. She hears voices several minutes later, and she wanders on to an impromptu porn shoot involving an unknown woman and two members of the horror film's Russian crew. Her embarrassment soon turns into terror when she realizes the porn film is actually a snuff film. Spotted by the two Russians, she has to run, hide, and evade the men in the large, darkened film studio. This extended scene is truly scary, with Waller ratcheting up and successfully sustaining the suspense and tension.

After this scene, the horror elements recede and the film morphs into a Russian gangster thriller. While the menacing feeling still exists, comedic elements start creeping in, but Waller and his fine cast make it work. This part of the film often gets compared to Hitchcock, but I don't think the comparison is useful. It certainly doesn't do Waller any favors. Hitchcock was often attracted to plots involving innocent bystanders sucked into dark conspiracies, and I can see him finding the plot of Mute Witness enticing, but he was a master visual stylist. Waller's visual style lacks personality and merely serves the plot.

Despite Waller's limitations, Mute Witness is a highly enjoyable film, thanks to the novelty of its story, the capable handling of tone, and, especially, the solid international cast. Zudina has to carry the film solely through her facial expressions, and she pulls it off in a big way. Her face is very expressive and emotive. Oleg Yankovskiy, who died of cancer just last week, is great as an undercover detective, and the two Russians playing the snuff filmmakers are some seriously creepy-looking individuals. Perhaps the strangest bit of casting is an unbilled cameo by Alec Guinness as the head Russian gangster, known only as The Reaper. Guinness's involvement in the film is a truly bizarre story. His scenes were filmed nine years before the rest of the movie. Seriously. Nine years before the rest of the movie. I'm not kidding. Waller, who had never directed a movie in his life, convinced Guinness to shoot a quick scene for no pay from an early draft of his screenplay in 1985. Guinness agreed on the condition that he remain uncredited in the eventual film. Little did he know that his performance, filmed 15 years before his death, would eventually be his final big-screen credit in 1994. (His last official credit was a TV movie in 1996.) Guinness filmed the scene quickly in one morning before catching a flight. Surprisingly, Guinness's scene is seamlessly interwoven into the film and doesn't look like it was shot nine years before the rest of the movie. When Waller's revised screenplay called for another shot of Guinness later in the film, he just used extra footage from the 1985 shoot and reversed the film so Guinness appeared to be facing a different direction. Bizarro world.

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