At long last, Ryûhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train (2008) makes it to Asheville. Apart from having what is perhaps the greatest title ever, it’s quite a treat to see that the film itself not only lives up to that title, but even lives up to the trailer’s claims that director Kitamura is “visionary.” (If I had a nickel for every nonvisionary “visionary” who’s come down the pike—running from A to Zack Snyder—I’d buy, well, something.) This effective expansion of Clive Barker’s short story of the same name simply never got the break it deserved, thanks to inner-studio jackassery (see my take on the topic here: http://avl.mx/10). In some small way, this single showing is an attempt to make up for the casual dismissal of this extremely stylish and creepy film.
The story concerns struggling photographer Leon (Bradley Cooper), who happens to witness the preamble to a disappearance in the subway that might be a murder—and takes a shot of an unusual ring on the hand of the possible murderer. We already know that there has been a murder and that the man with the ring, Mahogany (Vinnie Jones), is indeed the killer. What we don’t know is what this—and other killings we see committed by this man—is all about. The bulk of the film is designed to pull Leon further and further into the mysterious world of Mahogany and the grisly secret of the titular train.
What makes the film work so well is a combination of elements, starting with the strong visual sense that Kitamura evidences throughout the film. This isn’t merely flashy—though it’s easily as flashy as Tarantino at his showiest—it serves to create a kind of separate and supremely uncomfortable world in which the film takes place. Yes, the setting is recognizable as New York City, but it’s a peculiarly sinister New York where everything is just a little bit off. Moreover—and despite some amusingly over-the-top gore effects—the film has the good sense to take itself seriously, so that even when it arrives at its admittedly wildly improbable solution, it still seems somehow plausible. At least, it seems plausible within the confines of the film, and with a horror picture that’s really all that matters.