Netflix can be intimidating. I’m not suggesting it comes to your place of business and tells you what a nice establishment it is and what a shame it would be if something were to happen to it. No, it’s got too goddamn many options and there’s always the pitfall of renting something you feel like you should see only to have Schindler’s List languish unwatched in front of the TV while you watch yet another three hours of Family Guy on TBS.
Fortunately, you read me. Now Fear This will be a semi-regular (i.e., whenever the hell I decide to write it) feature profiling a movie, usually horror, featured on Netflix. Why horror? Because I like horror and this is my feature. You want action? You write it, smart guy. The inaugural feature will be one of my favorite b-movies, Mute Witness, a thriller from 1994. While not a masterpiece by any stretch, this film is a completely satisfying experience and makes a worthy addition to the queue.
The film opens on a protracted death scene. It’s so amateurish that you might be tempted to turn off the DVD player and curse me for a practical joke well done. Keep it on. We shortly learn that we’re on the set of a low-budget thriller (yes, a low-budget thriller within a low-budget thriller) and that the director, Andy (Evan Richards) is an incompetent boob. Nothing in the rest of the film changes this initial impression.
We then meet Billy Hughes (Marina Sudina) the film-within-the-film’s makeup artist, and Mute Witness’s heroine and titular everything. The first thing we notice about her is that she’s completely adorable. She has that most elusive quality of pseudo-attainability that used to mark its owner as a Girl Next Door before Hugh Hefner co-opted the term for his merry band of Real Dolls. Instead, let’s enshrine Sudina in the Jenna Fischer All-Stars and hope there isn’t a reality show by that title in the pipe.
The next thing we learn is that Billy is mute, as helpfully explained by her sister Karen, who is also Andy’s unfortunate girlfriend. Billy can hear just fine and read lips, but she can’t make a sound. Wisely, the film never explains any further. It never offers a half-assed excuse, nor does Billy suddenly learn to speak in the third act as the completion of her arc. It serves as a handicap that heightens tension for our heroine and makes standard actions like screaming bloody murder or calling the police difficult to impossible. Because Billy can’t call for help, she is forced to resolve situations on her own, and Billy is nothing if not resourceful.
The film continues to chew on its ouroboros tail as we learn that the film-with-a-film is being shot in Russia for budgetary reasons (as was Mute Witness). Billy, Karen and Andy are the only three Americans on set, their outsider status adding to the suspense. While showing this film to an honest-to-god Russian, I learned another layer of greatness initially hidden to me. When one of the crew, a particularly rough-hewn fellow who looked like he crawled out of a vodka bottle just long enough to sodomize a goat, spoke up, my Russian friend sneered, “He’s such a stereotypical Southern Russian.” Yes, Mute Witness includes prejudice that’s invisible to its intended American audience. Mull that level of awesome over.
Alone and locked in the set for the night, Billy witnesses The Stereotypical Southern Russian and his friend shooting a snuff film. This shocked me, mostly because I had no idea murder was illegal in Russia. All this time, I’d been referring to a death by stabbing as “The Moscow Hello.”
Anyway, Billy sees this, and TSSR and his friend decide to shut her up, mostly because they don’t know about irony east of the Balkans yet. The rest of the movie involves Billy avoiding death at their hands, and later at the hands of the Russian Mob that commissions TSSR’s amateur productions, all while her twin handicaps, her muteness and friendship with Andy, try to drag her into an unmarked grave.
Like any b-movie, Mute Witness has a flaw. At several points during the film, one character looks into the eyes of another who believes he or she is about to die. The idea is that there’s no faking that look. This is why Billy is convinced that the murder she witnesses in the beginning is in fact real even though it happens on the set of a slasher movie with plentiful fake blood and trick knives within easy reach. The visual shorthand Mute Witness employs is to cut to several closer shots in succession accompanied by a cheesy sting. Yes, this is as bad as it sounds. The saving grace is that it is used for a specific reason, is used consistently each time and has a decent payoff in the end. The rest of the movie is good enough to forgive it this one lameness.
“Hitchcockian” is a word that gets thrown around a great deal, in no small part because it’s hilarious. I’m going to throw it around for precisely that reason, but also because Mute Witness warrants the comparison. It can’t equal Hitchcock’s masterpieces, but it is more in the vein of the revisions spearheaded in the ’80s. Mute Witness is superior to any of Brian DePalma’s offerings because it never gets lost in the glitz that continues to distract DePalma. Mute Witness, despite being about a mute makeup artist foiling a Russian Mob-led snuff film ring, remains grounded in reality. It has fallen through the cracks, but I am part of (if not the de facto leader) of a cult dedicated to raising its profile.
And yes, that is Sir Alec Guinness.