MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (2008)
Director: Ryűhei Kitamura
Any horror fan worth their salt is at least familiar with Clive Barker. He might not have the mainstream recognition of Stephen King, but Barker is often recognized as one of the leading names in the gothic horror and dark fantasy literary genres. His novels and short stories have proven popular with fans of that style, and they've also had their effect on the world of motion pictures as well. There've been a handful of movies based on his work, the most notable of which are the popular cult classics Hellraiser (which Barker himself directed) and Candyman. But we're not here to discuss Hellraiser, Candyman, or their sequels. Instead, the movie I'll be reviewing right now is The Midnight Meat Train. Based on one of the stories in the first volume of Barker's Books of Blood collections, the movie was barely in theaters at all before it was quickly and quietly rushed off to DVD. But I think it might have a chance at becoming a cult classic if people can discover it, because it's an awesome movie.
Our tale of terror focuses on Leon Kaufman (Bradley Cooper), a struggling photographer looking for his big break. That break seems to come when his girlfriend, Maya (Leslie Bibb), pulls some strings and gets him a meeting with influential art dealer Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields). Susan believes Leon has potential, but asks him to bring her some grittier material before she'll consider displaying his photos. Leon finds his grittier pictures soon enough, getting a few good shots while stopping a gang from harassing a young woman in a subway station. Susan is impressed with the photos, agreeing to give him a spot in her next display show if he can produce two more similar pictures.
This task leads him to cross paths with Mahogany (Vinnie Jones), a well-dressed butcher who is frighteningly silent at all times. When Leon hears that the girl he helped in the subway station has disappeared without a trace, he begins to notice that Mahogany appears in the background of many of the pictures he took that night. A curious Leon investigates, discovering that Mahogany is a brutal serial murderer who has turned a subway train into his own personal meat locker. But as he digs deeper into the madness behind Mahogany's methods, he'll soon discover that some mysteries are best left unsolved.
You might not have heard of The Midnight Meat Train, but that's okay. You wouldn't have heard of it unless you were following horror movie news websites during the summer of 2008. Prior to its theatrical release, there was a management shakeup at Lions Gate Entertainment. Joe Drake had just been hired to run Lions Gate's theatrical division, and the story goes that he decided to throw many of his predecessor's yet-to-be-released movies under the bus after he took the job. While The Midnight Meat Train seems to have caught the worst of it, seeing an unadvertised ten-day release in only 102 discount theaters. Its final domestic gross was an incredibly paltry $73,548. And that's a shame, because it's a brave movie. It isn't afraid to be different from the usual horror movies that get released all the time, and it gets my respect for that.
At the helm is Japanese filmmaker Ryűhei Kitamura, who had previously directed Godzilla: Final Wars and the cult favorite Versus. Whoever hired him to direct The Midnight Meat Train should be proud of themselves, because Kitamura does an absolutely fantastic job. The movie looks gray and gloomy, carrying a look that suits the content. The darkness sets the perfect atmosphere for the movie, as does the super-slick cinematography from Jonathan Sela. While some of the coolest camerawork could only have been done through CGI, Kitamura and Sela still manage to go make the movie look like a million bucks. They also get a big boost from the music, composed by Robb Williamson and Johannes Kobilka. Their music alternates between a melancholy sound and a more industrial style depending on the situation, and it all goes a long way in helping to establish the movie's atmosphere and tone.
Next on my list is Jeff Buhler's screenplay. I must confess that I've never read Barker's original short story, so I can't compare the movie to it. But I still got the feeling that Buhler lost something in the translation. There are some parts that feel rushed, and others that feel incomplete. And when the explanation for Mahogany's killing spree finally arrives, you get the feeling that Buhler forgot about it and had to slap something together at the last minute. It seems rushed almost to the point of feeling cheap, because it nearly comes out of nowhere.
The argument could also be made that the movie has a real lack of character development. But after the movie, I came away with the feeling that it wasn't a movie about characters, but about obsession. As the movie goes on, Leon becomes more and more obsessed with catching Mahogany in the act and proving he's the killer that Leon is sure he is. It consumes him, drives him beyond his initial desire to help find a missing girl to wanting to justify his own fears. This obsession nearly destroys him, making him push his girlfriend away, ignore his career's big break, and drives his sanity to its breaking point. If this really is what the movie is about, then Buhler's done a fine job of putting it together. Shame about that rushed payoff, though.
The final component of The Midnight Meat Train is the cast, which is quite small, actually. Most of the characters either add nothing to the plot or are completely inconsequential, so that just leaves us with three actors to discuss. In the lead role, Bradley Cooper does exactly what he needs to hold the audience's attention. Cooper effortlessly shows the character's evolution from curious voyeur to borderline lunatic, all the while making sure the audience cares about Leon and wants to follow his exploits. He's the center of the movie, so it would have lived or died on his performance. And personally, I thought he pulled it off well. I also thought Leslie Bibb did a fine job as well. Though I will admit that her character seems somewhat forgettable in the long run, Bibb plays the role with a certain vulnerability that makes her endearing.
But my favorite performance in the movie comes from Vinnie Jones. I don't think it's possible for Jones to play anything other than a tough guy when he's cast in a movie, but what sets Mahogany apart from other characters he's played is his lack of dialogue. Most of the time, Jones's characters get to make plenty of smart-ass remarks and add a certain sense of levity to the movie. But not in The Midnight Meat Train. His character here only speaks three words at the very end of the movie. This silence works wonders, because it makes Mahogany a more frightening, more intimidating character. The whole visual of a guy dressed in a three-piece suit, slowly approaching someone so he can bash their brains in with a steel mallet wouldn't be as terrifying if the killer was making goofy puns while he went about his business. Jones is almost stoic here, killing his victims as if it were his job. He's very good in the role, conveying all the necessary emotion with just a look or a movement. I don't think they could have hired a better actor for the part.
While The Midnight Meat Train has elements of a slasher movie, it's most definitely a horror movie of a different sort. It's the handiwork of Clive Barker, that's for sure. And maybe it's for the best that it got screwed out of a wide theatrical release, because now it can find an audience the old fashioned way: through word of mouth among the truly dedicated horror fans. It's not a perfect movie, but it's quite good. Good enough for me to give it three and a half stars out of five. Hopefully, The Midnight Meat Train will find its audience, because it deserves one.
Final Rating: ***˝