The 13th Floor

Afternoon Quickie: A Look Back at 1994s Superb Horror Thriller MUTE WITNESS

For this week’s “Afternoon Quickie”, let’s look back at 1994s MUTE WITNESS, a lesser-known horror gem and a splendid slasher/thriller.

“She Can’t Speak. She Can’t Scream. She Can’t Beg For Mercy.”

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Billy Hughes is a make-up artist working on a film shoot in Moscow. She is also mute, being able to hear, but not speak. One night, she stays late searching for a lost prop and witnesses the filming of what she thinks is porn but it quickly escalates into a snuff film. She escapes the deadly filmmakers only to find she has become involved in a larger criminal ring. Now everyone wants to kill her, but due to her disability she is having problems telling people what is going on.

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This is one tense movie, like a “Hitchcock level” of tension. The suspense starts about 15 minutes into the movie and only escalates as the film moves through a variety of creative twists and turns. Language is key, or more so the lack of it poses a constant problem. Not only can mute Billy not fully explain what is going on because she is unable to speak, there is also a huge language barrier between the English-speaking film crew and the Russian authorities and bystanders. Yet, in a rather pointed statement, the worst communication skills come from the English filmmakers who both speak the same language.

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This film is not only a taut, terror-filled horror flick, but it is also an effective black comedy. At times, hilarity results because none of the characters have the slightest idea how to converse with each other. It’s almost farce-like. The comedy is subtle, but brilliantly woven throughout.

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MUTE WITNESS also features a cameo by Sir Alec Guinness. He appears as the criminal mastermind “The Reaper” who seems to be orchestrating the illicit activity and attempted mob hits on Billy. Guinness’s scenes were actually shot nine years prior in 1985. Director Anthony Waller (who also directed AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS) held onto the footage hoping he could someday work it into a feature. Guinness did not charge for the cameo under the stipulation that his appearance would go uncredited.

It’s a bit difficult to say why this film did not make a bigger splash during its release in the 90s or in subsequent years. It was distributed at a time when people had grown a little bored of slasher films. The 1980s were owned by the slasher, but by the time the 90s rolled around, no one was sure what the next big horror push would be. It wasn’t until two years later when SCREAM came out in 1996 that horror fans once again embraced the slasher sub-genre by poking fun at its over-used formula.

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Regardless, MUTE WITNESS is a tightly wound thriller with ample gore as well. The lead actress (who is Russian and does not actually speak English) does an amazing job pantomiming her struggle for survival throughout. This is by far one of the most nerve-wracking films I have ever seen.

Rumors have been floating around for years of a MUTE WITNESS American remake, but little has become of it.

How You Can See It: I couldn’t find this title streaming anywhere, but luckily a used DVD will only cost you .01 cents on Amazon. A penny well spent!

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