Mute Witness (1995) Alec Guinness – Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

Last Updated on June 24, 2024

If horror fans know the name Anthony Waller, it’s most likely because he directed a movie that delivered a major blow to his career right when it should have been on the rise: his second feature, An American Werewolf in Paris. But Waller made a much better movie that he deserves recognition for, the one that earned him the chance to make that poorly received sequel to a John Landis classic. Waller’s first feature was a fun, suspenseful thriller called Mute Witness (buy a copy HERE), and that’s the movie we’re going to be talking about in this episode of The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw.

CREATORS / CAST: Like many filmmakers, Anthony Waller got his start working on commercials, but he was still a twenty-something college student when he managed to convince Oscar-winning actor Alec Guinness – that’s right, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself – to make a cameo in his feature directorial debut. There wasn’t even a script for Mute Witness when Waller approached Guinness about the project at an awards ceremony in Germany, but that didn’t discourage the aspiring filmmaker from asking the legendary actor to be in his movie. Guinness said his schedule was full for the next year and a half, but Waller saw a window of opportunity: they could shoot a scene in a parking garage the following morning, before Guinness caught an afternoon flight out of the country. Guinness agreed to do the cameo, and even said he would do it for free, the only condition being that he wouldn’t be credited in the finished film. Which is why Guinness is listed as “Mystery Guest Star” in the credits of Mute Witness.

Once Guinness agreed to appear in the movie, Waller had to write his portion of the script and assemble crew and equipment overnight. He got it done, quite an accomplishment for a college kid. Guinness worked with Waller just long enough to shoot three takes of the short cameo, then went on with his life… and now Waller had an Alec Guinness performance that he needed to build a movie around. That was in 1985, and even with that Guinness scene in the can it still took Waller eight years to raise the funding to make a full feature. During that time, he made some award-winning commercials and, along the way, wrote the Mute Witness screenplay. His original vision for the story was that it would be set in Chicago in the 1930s, but budgetary issues eventually convinced him to change the setting to modern day Moscow – and once that change had been made, he was able to secure a two million dollar budget from a German investor. According to Waller, the film would have cost four times more than that if it hadn’t been made in Moscow.

The version of Mute Witness that made it from script to screen stars Russian actress Marina Zudina in the silent role of Billy Hughes, a mute American special effects artist working on a low budget slasher movie that American director Andy Clarke, played by Evan Richards, is filming in Moscow. Also part of the film’s crew is Billy’s sister Karen, who is played by Fay Ripley and happens to be in a relationship with Andy. These Americans don’t seem to be having a great time working in Russia, but things could be much worse – and they do get much worse when Billy goes back inside the studio after filming wraps one night and sees a couple crew members shooting a film of their own. A snuff film that ends with the killing of a prostitute.

From that point on, Mute Witness is packed with suspenseful, thrilling moments, as Billy tries to avoid becoming the killers’ next victim and struggles to convince the local authorities that a murder actually occurred. It doesn’t help that the snuff makers are associated with the mob, led by the Mystery Guest Star as a character called The Reaper, and that this mob owns some members of the police force. An investigator named Larsen, played by Oleg Yankovskiy, seems determined to bring The Reaper to justice, but it’s not clear whether or not he can be trusted.

BACKGROUND: Securing funding for Mute Witness was an eight year journey for Waller, but the troubles didn’t go away as soon as he had that two million at his disposal. Before production was scheduled to begin, there was a diphtheria epidemic in Moscow, which made it difficult to convince cast and crew members to work in the city. When the film equipment was flown in from Germany, it was seized by Russian customs agents, who demanded a fine of sixty thousand dollars be paid before they would release it. Waller was able to negotiate with them and liberated the equipment for just five thousand dollars and “a few bottles of vodka”. But that wasn’t the last time there were additional fees paid to keep the production rolling. Waller has said that the Russian co-producers claimed three separate crime organizations had to be paid off to make sure there wouldn’t be any disturbances. He’s just not sure if that’s true, or if it was a way to cover for missing funds.

The scheduled first day of filming was October 4, 1993, which happened to be the exact same day a constitutional crisis in Russia that saw the police and army fighting with demonstrators who opposed Russian president Boris Yeltsin culminated in a raid on the Russian White House that even included tanks opening fire on the upper floors of the building. Russia was on the edge of civil war, hundreds of people were killed or injured, and filming on Mute Witness was delayed. But despite how scary and dangerous the situation was, the delay only lasted one week.

Much like the characters in his movie, Waller found it difficult to work with the Russian crew, which he felt was painfully slow. He also had to deal with one unspecified actor’s drug addiction, and the fact that Yankovskiy tried to drop out of the project because he wasn’t confident in his English skills. After taking a crash course in the language, Yankovskiy decided to stick around. Filming exterior scenes during the winter also presented challenges, with the cast and crew facing temperatures as low as twenty-three degrees below zero… but in the end, it all worked out. Production wrapped at the end of 1993 after seventy-one shooting days, a schedule most directors of low budget films like this would be extremely jealous of.

Mute Witness received very positive reactions from its screenings, and landed distribution through Columbia TriStar in multiple territories. It didn’t receive a wide release in the United States, it only played in a total of two hundred and eighty-four theatres, and it didn’t rake in a lot of cash, barely over one million domestic, but it made its way out into the world and word of mouth was strong enough that Waller caught the attention of Hollywood studios. He happily took on the job of directing An American Werewolf in Paris, a long-awaited sequel to a film he had seen and loved when it was first released. Waller’s Werewolf movie was such a letdown, it seems to have retroactively made people forget how much positive attention he received for Mute Witness. At the time, this movie appeared to be the debut of a filmmaker who had a very promising career ahead of him… but while Waller continues to work, he has never reached the heights of Mute Witness and An American Werewolf in Paris again, and Mute Witness has become quite obscure.

This is a movie that deserves more popularity, as it really was a great debut for Waller. Watching it now, knowing how his career would go, it makes you wonder how many awesome thrillers we could have gotten from him if only he could have maintained this quality, if the sophomore slump of An American Werewolf in Paris hadn’t ruined his momentum.

WHAT MAKES IT GREAT: Mute Witness starts off looking like it’s going to be a terrible slasher, a bottom of the barrel Halloween knock-off about an escaped mental patient, but the opening scene is actually a glimpse at the movie Andy Clarke is making in Moscow. Judging by the quality of the scene we see, this thing was not worth coming to Moscow to make. It seems like the behind-the-scenes look at the making of Andy’s movie may have been something Waller shot late in production, as a way to parody the troubles he was having making a movie in Moscow himself. There are language barriers on set, slow crew members, and the filming day ends before Andy can get anything good shot. This is also a great way to introduce viewers to three very important characters; Andy, Billy, and Karen. Not only are they established, but Billy also has notable interactions with the two crew members she will soon catch shooting a snuff film.

Waller doesn’t waste any time getting to the action; Billy finds herself stuck in the dark, closed-down studio right away, and she has witnessed the murder by the 20 minute mark. This kicks off a masterful, thrilling cat and mouse sequence, with Billy trying to escape the studio without being spotted by the killers. There are shades of Hitchcock and De Palma in the way Waller handles the suspense sequences; that’s not to say he was working on their level, but this was very impressive for a first-time filmmaker.

There are more great thriller sequences throughout the movie, as Billy continues to deal with killers and corrupt authority figures, and it’s amazing to watch Marina Zudina handle everything her character goes through without being able to speak or scream. Every bit of Zudina’s performance is conveyed with facial expressions, and the actress did an impeccable job. She has had a lengthy career, but aside from Mute Witness has worked entirely in Russian productions. If she and Waller had any communication issues, they’re not evident in the finished film. Zudina was the perfect choice to bring Billy Hughes to life, and she made the viewer care about her and root for her.

Evan Richards and Fay Ripley are also very entertaining to watch as Andy and Karen get mixed up in the mess Billy has found herself in. With their reactions to dangerous situations, Waller brings a strong sense of humor into the movie. He said, “I wanted to give the audience a cinematic roller coaster. I was interested in the mix between fear, tension and comedy, and using those elements to give relief to each other. The end result, hopefully, is exhilaration.”

Watching the film, it’s tough to imagine the version that Waller originally envisioned, where the story was set in 1930s Chicago. That would have made the whole thing very different, and probably not as effective. The language barrier isn’t just shown as a complication on the set of Andy’s movie, the fact that the American characters can’t speak Russian – or, in Billy’s case, can’t speak at all – causes them trouble every step of the way, and it adds to the tension of the film that our lead characters can’t communicate with the people around them. Changing the setting to modern day Moscow wasn’t only beneficial financially, the characters being in a country where they can barely function makes the story even more involving. Waller agreed that the Moscow setting added to the film, saying it provided an extra “feeling of danger, isolation, and helplessness in which our American heroes have to fight for their survival.”

BEST SCENE(S): Many viewers may feel that Mute Witness reaches its peak with the sequence in which Billy is trapped in the film studio with the two killers, and it’s hard to argue that. Those 13 minutes of Billy sneaking through dark rooms and climbing around in an elevator shaft, fearing for her life every second, are when Waller first shows himself to be a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on. However, it does have some serious competition from a sequence later in the film where the killers come to Billy’s apartment and bust in while she desperately tries to call the police through a text-to-speech program. When she can’t get help fast enough, Billy has to directly fight for her life. She can’t run and hide anymore.

Andy and Karen have their own standout moments while facing killers in Billy’s apartment, and these stand out due to how different the tone is when their lives are in danger. When killers are after Billy, it’s pure thrills and suspense, but when Andy and Karen are in trouble it’s quite amusing.

PARTING SHOT: Mute Witness is a really entertaining movie, carried on the shoulders of an incredible performance from Marina Zudina. With a few seconds of Alec Guinness in there to really make the whole thing feel prestigious.

This film makes it clear that Waller could have and should have gone on to bigger and better things. He had the talent, and no matter how poorly An American Werewolf in Paris turned out, he should have had more opportunities to prove himself. It’s a shame we don’t have a lot more solid Anthony Waller thrillers to watch at this point, but at least we have Mute Witness to go back and take a look at, and it still holds up as something special all this time later. If you haven’t seen Mute Witness before, seek it out and give it a chance – and while you’re watching it, try not to think about that werewolf movie Waller made. Just enjoy how well he told the story of Billy Hughes.

Some previous episodes of The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw can be viewed below. To see more, check out our YouTube channel JoBlo Horror Videos – and subscribe while you’re at it!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.