Mute Witness. 1995. Directed & Written by Anthony Waller.
Starring Marina Zudina, Fay Ripley, Evan Richards, Oleg Yankovskiy, Igor Volkov, Sergei Karlenkov, Alec Guinness, Aleksandry Pyatkov, & Nikolay Chindyaykin.
Rated R. 95 minutes.
It’s a shame Anthony Waller only made one other good movie, 2009’s eerie Nine Miles Down. His work on Mute Witness is spectacular— a wildly underrated movie of the 1990s. Double shame more people don’t know this one given how many supposed movie lovers write off the ’90s as a poor time for horror when it was anything but bad.
Mute Witness is a horror-thriller with razor sharp tension that gets under the skin. The whole story takes us on a ride between reality and fiction – using practical special effects as a vehicle – and we’re only ever sure of which we’re seeing once the finale’s finished.
More importantly, the screenplay’s use of a mute woman, Billy Hughes (Marina Zudina), as protagonist becomes a commentary on all the ways in which women who come forward with stories of violence committed against them/other women are disbelieved or outright silenced. These symbolic yet very real silenced women must rely only on themselves and other like-minded women, which the plot expresses vividly in brutal fashion. Billy’s fight is against the patriarchal stranglehold of men’s authority, and by the end she’s even got to help a policeman who ought to have been helping her, illustrating all the strengths a modern woman has to embody if she intends on surviving a cruel, ugly man’s world.
The blending of reality and fiction is a significant aspect. We begin with a slasher film metafictional opening— a movie’s events taking place in a movie studio on a movie set. Art begins imitating life and vice versa, in the darkest of ways. The film studio and its set doubles at night after hours as the setting for a snuff film. Also fitting, with the crossover between reality and fiction, that the opening’s an homage to 1975’s Snuff.
What this opening’s metafiction does is take us into the world of women. Their perspectives are routinely questioned or outright disbelieved. Women live in reality, and they have those realities twisted into fictions by men. As the movie we’re watching blends into the movie within the plot, the viewer’s taken into the perspective of a woman, made even further compelling by the fact Billy – witness to a real murder – is a mute woman.
Not only is Billy mute, she’s in a foreign country and doesn’t know the language. She’s cut off by all traditional means of communication, symbolic of all those silenced women, all the victims, whether direct or indirect, of male violence. She’s silent, trapped, and hunted. Yet we know she’s telling the truth. If we didn’t there’d still remain evidence of her truth. For instance, she’s a practical effects artist, and the murderers pass things off to the cops as being part of an effects test, but she knows the difference. Moreover, she’s haunted by what she’s seen, whereas the fake death she takes part in on movie sets is just that – fake – and so she’s not bothered by fiction while the real murder she witnessed plagues her.
The best depiction of this is when she has a nightmare vision, seeing the murdered woman from the snuff film at a window with a ghostly face. This is where the screenplay makes evident the difference between real and fictional horror: trauma. The movies don’t actually traumatise anybody, they’re imaginary— real death and horror is a source of corporeal and psychological trauma.
“…but nobody believes her.”
The legend of the fabled snuff film leads others – the authorities – to dismiss a story of murder from Billy. Not to mention the fictional villain of the fake movie at the start wears the same stocking mask as the real murderer in the snuff film. The killers blur the lines of reality and film deeper by using a blood spurting prop knife – ironically made by Billy – to stage an attack with the cops present, fully rendering the mute girl’s real story into fiction.
If Billy were taken legitimately as serious the police would’ve investigated more at length, talked to the men on the movie set separately. Much more than a casual, unofficial questioning. Billy’s a woman, so her accusations aren’t believed, at least not initially. Like so many – too many – other women, Billy’s left exposed and in grave danger because of an inability on the part of men to take the stories of women at face value.
Only before it’s near too late does a sole cop believe Billy’s story. And he may not actually have honest intentions, either. Through it all, Bill’s safety is up to her to secure, along with her friend – another woman – who believed her all along.
BUT SHE’S MURDERED AFTER ALL! Because the cops and criminals are all one big web of patriarchy. At least that’s what she wants THEM to believe. Billy actually uses her expert talents to fake her own death with a prop gun and squibs. Although the cop helps her she’s ultimately the one to save herself. This shows how women have to rely on themselves and their talents, not the system, in order to survive the horrors of men.
The defining aspect of Mute Witness is the line drawn between fiction and reality. Billy’s a veteran in the industry, she’s seen fake kills, but the actual murder she sees by accident leaves her traumatised. That’s exactly how it is in real life for horror movie lovers, who can watch all the fake murder possible yet still find real life horror and pain scary. Fake death does not truly desensitise, only to more fake murder scenes. The movie partly acts as a statement on the powers of reality and the limits of fiction.
Again, the focal point of the movie is to show how women are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to men and society as a whole believing their truths. In 2018, this is as relevant as it ever was— though there’s progress being made there’s so much further to go before things are significantly better than they have been for thousands of years.
Mute Witness is a slick horror-thriller, carrying with it smart commentary about the world in which we live, inundated by untold numbers of horrors every day. In a day and age where the fictional’s becoming more real by way of technology, there’s always a worry people won’t be able to tell the difference. What we need to do is concentrate on listening to the people who tell us their stories first, such as the women who try telling us about the violence they experience. Because if we, as a society, can’t trust the experiences of others, then how can we trust our own experiences? If we’re not careful, soon nothing will be real anymore, evidence be damned.