Though fans love to toss them into the same supernatural boat, Clive Barker and his main inspiration Stephen King have very little in common. The man from Maine works in a traditional terror territory while Barker believes in the mantra “blood, beasts, and bedevilment.” King claims the rank of best selling genre author of all time. The brazen Brit’s resume is a little less successful. So it’s safe to say that in meaningful macabre circles, they are as different as Bram Stoker and Anne Rice. But they do share one thing in common. Each has had incredibly successful novels and/or short stories destroyed by hackneyed Hollywood film adaptations. However, in the case of Midnight Meat Train, Barker finally sees his ideas wholly realized in brilliant fashion.
Though he’s very good at what he does, photographer Leon Kauffman is barely making a living. His girlfriend Maya believes in him, but that doesn’t help to pay the bills. So when his pal Jurgis gets him an interview with influential gallery owner Susan Hoff, Leon thinks his ship has finally come it. But the shrewd businesswoman sees nothing that interests her - that is, until she comes across as particularly grim photo. She suggests Leon head back onto the streets and capture the real city - mean, vicious, unrepentant. During one of his night shoots, our hero comes across a brawny man in a well tailored suit. Following him around, Leon soon discovers that he may be a serial killer. Intrigued by the motive behind this butcher, he continues his surveillance. What Leon doesn’t know is that he is putting his life, and the life of everyone he knows, in mortal danger.
Midnight Meat Train
Bradley Cooper, Vinnie Jones, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, Roger Bart
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 1 Aug 2008 (General release); 2008)
Midnight Meat Train can best be described as splatter noir. It’s Fritz Lang by way of an abattoir. It is part genius, part genre excess, with enough inventive gore to make even the most seasoned lover of arterial spray sit up and take notice. Thanks to the visionary work by Versus helmer Ryuhei Kitamura and the most unsettling kills this side of Eli Roth, we get a true gut wrenching experience. This is a movie that grabs you by the errant body parts and literally rips you apart. Kitamura is a big fan of over the top violence - his infamous zombie mob movie from 2000 is second only to Riki-O: Story of Ricky in individual offal spilled. But in Midnight Meat Train, he makes every death count. By keeping the camera locked on the victim as eyes fly out and faces crumble, he turns the cinematic threat intensity up to near apocalyptic levels.
It helps that he balances things out with a romantic subplot that’s deep with emotion. Actors Bradley Cooper and Leslie Bibb turn Leon and Maya into a couple you can root for. She only wants the best for him and he loves her unconditionally. Even when her beau goes bonkers and starts acting odd, she does nothing but support him. Some might question her dedication - she ends up putting herself right in harms way during a typical “what were they thinking” brand of inappropriate snooping - but even at the end, she’s determined to stand by her man. Cooper compliments this devotion nicely. His decent into obsession may seem abrupt, but a story element near the end may help explain the sudden shift.
But it is UK thug mug Vinnie Jones who steals the show as Mahogany, long pig butcher to…no, that would be spoiling things. Indeed, the famed onscreen heavy portrays someone so enigmatic, so full of secrets that part of the joy in Midnight Meat Train is uncovering all his character clues. As they fall into place, one by one, the portrait painted is unsettling indeed. In fact, the minute Jones is proven fallible, or even worse, human, we start to really hate him. Unlike other famed mass murderers, Kitamura and his writers aren’t out to make another Voorhees. Mahogany has a purpose, and you’re enjoyment of the movie in general just may turn on it.
In fact, the ending reveal is the make or break point for Midnight Meat Train. The explanation for all the deaths, the reason the cops don’t care, how one man manages to dispatch dozens of people without raising much of a stink is satisfying if slightly surreal. It does explain what Kitamura was doing with all those remarkable CG shots of subway trains careening down unearthly tracks, and it pays off in ways that are plausible. But horror fans are a notoriously persnickety bunch. Fail to fulfill your promise or try to trick them and they will laugh you out of the fright fraternity. But Midnight Meat Train does deliver. It may require a bit more of that patented suspension of dread disbelief, but thanks to the visionary behind the lens, we enjoy the deferment.
As usual, the studio behind the film unceremoniously dumped it on a few dozen “dollar theater” screens this past August - and this after touting it for months as some kind of macabre milestone. It just goes to show how marginalized and misunderstood the genre really is. Of course, the track record of the brain behind the bloodshed may have given some of the suits pause for concern. Ryuhei Kitamura is far from a household name, and Clive Barker may be a fascinating individual and celebrated writer, but as the foundation for a film, he has very limited appeal. Midnight Meat Train might have changed all that, had the fright community been given a chance to celebrate its paranormal panache. Sadly, it looks like DVD will have to save the day - which is typical for terror.