Movie Review: 'Mute Witness'
There are times when you peer into the artfully underlit gloom of Mute Witness (Sony Pictures Classics, R) that the screen looks like a grimy windshield in need of wiping. But that sinister murk — and the urge to lean forward for a better view even as you battle a suspense-movie aficionado’s inclination to shrink in anticipatory terror — is part of the fun of this nifty, stylish thriller.
Actually, British filmmaker Anthony Waller’s feature debut is half tribute and half send-up of the genre — something closer to Dead Again than Wait Until Dark. As it begins, a woman is being stalked in her apartment. The camera cuts, Psycho style, between tight close-ups of vulnerability (the woman applying a thick coat of sexy red lipstick) and spooky long shots of menace (the stalker reflected across the room in a bathroom mirror). He approaches, she cowers, he attacks, she spurts blood and dies. And dies. And dies in a slow, hyperdramatic fashion that defines ”chewing the scenery.” Cut. We’re watching a low-budget slasher movie being made in a shabby Moscow film studio (with a Russian cast and crew) by Andy, a callow American rich kid (Evan Richards), Andy’s girlfriend, Karen (Fay Ripley), and Karen’s sister, Billy, a special-effects makeup artist (Marina Sudina). Billy’s the title character: She’s mute, but she can hear. And that night, when she gets accidentally locked in the studio after she thinks everyone else has left, she stumbles across the making of what appears to be a gruesome snuff film. Or is it? When Karen and Andy eventually rescue her, the three get caught in an ornate plot involving the police, the KGB, a shadowy Mob figure, and a lot of fake — and real — blood. (The mobster actor is billed as Mystery Guest Star, but it gives nothing away to reveal that he’s Alec Guinness, in a businesslike performance knocked out in one day 10 years ago, when the filmmaker first had the idea for this project.)
Waller has mostly worked on TV commercials, but off duty he’s learned to toy with the variable rhythms of cinematic horror. And setting the story in Moscow was inspired: With its gangs and spies, the city is creepy from the git-go. At times the jokes are too obvious, but mostly Mute Witness walks the line between farce and fear-mongering with real ingenuity. It’s the cool thing to see on a night when a pal says, ”Ooh, let’s get scared!” B+