Regular—and possibly some irregular—readers may recall that I did a “Screening Room” a while back called “The Murder of The Midnight Meat Train” in which I recounted the strange antics of the manner in which Lionsgate handled the “release” of the horror film of that delicious title. Said column can be found here.
Well, at long last Lionsgate has—somewhat begrudgingly, it seems—released The Midnight Meat Train on DVD. Packaged in the cheapest plastic DVD case I’ve ever seen (which may be standard for them, since my shelves are not exactly awash in Lionsgate titles) and with little printed information, the perfectly fine 2.35:1 transfer (blessedly, anamorphically-enhanced) at least comes with a smattering of extras, including an audio commentary by Clive Barker (on whose short story the film is based) and director Ryuhei Kitamura. (I’ve not had the chance to listen to the commentary track yet.) The claim is also made that what we have here is the “unrated director’s cut,” which would be more impressive if more than a handful of folks ever got the chance to see the R-rated version. (Based on the running times listed on the IMDb, the director’s cut would seem to be two minutes longer.)
Since I’d been curious to see the film ever since I encountered the trailer in September of 2007, I lost no time in running out to get a copy. And when I say I lost no time, I’m not kidding, since I had co-critic Justin Souther pick it up. (In the immortal words of Sir Henry Rawlinson, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth forcing someone else to do it.”) The excitement ran high enough that we (an audience of seven) arranged to see Midnight Meat Train on the big screen, so we could at least get an approximation of what it would have been like had it gotten a proper release.
And what did we get for our trouble? Well, Midnight Meat Train may be no classic of the genre, but it’s certainly a better and more interesting film than most of what passes for horror movies these days. As one of our crowd asked at the end of it, “How is it that a piece of crap like My Bloody Valentine gets released and that doesn’t?” While I’m not as harsh in my assessment of Bloody Valentine (based almost entirely on its use of 3-D and not any intrinsic merit of its screenplay), I’d call that a fair question—one that only Lionsgate can answer, but probably won’t.
Though it’s probably pretty faint praise, I have no reservations in calling the film easily the best English language horror film of 2008 (you’re not going to beat the Swedish Let the Right One In) and the best of what we’ve seen of the 2009 crop to date. It is certainly many times better that the film it was bumped from its original release for, The Strangers. In fact, it’s only competition of recent vintage is Alexandre Aja’s Mirrors, and it wins that bout if only by virtue of a script that’s devoid of unintentionally funny dialogue.
The screenplay by Jeff Buhler (whose only other credit is a direct-to-video horror picture called Insanitarium, which he also directed) is faithful to the essence of Barker’s short story, but intelligently expanded to make it into a feature length affair. It’s still the story of a man, Leon (Bradley Cooper), who inadvertently stumbles onto the fact that a strange character, Mahogany (Vinnie Jones), is butchering people late at night on a subway train. And it retains the story’s ending—about which I’ll say nothing, since that ending took the rest of our audience pretty much by surprise in that no one else had read the story, except to note that it’s typical of Barker’s urban legend horrors.
Generally speaking, I think Buhler’s screenplay actually improves on the story, which is a compact grisly mood piece. Buhler’s expansion makes it into something unusual in the realm of modern horror—an adult horror picture with reasonably believable adult human characters. The film takes Leon’s working stiff character and more or less divides him into two characters by giving him a girlfriend, Maya (Leslie Bibb), who becomes the working stiff. Leon is turned into a wanna-be photographer, which gives the character more purpose for wanting to be in New York City. It also imbues the film with something of the quality of Atonioni’s Blowup (1966), placing Leon in the role of someone whose camera captured the secret of a mystery that he finds himself unable to resist investigating on his own. It’s also a very workable plot device to explain his obviously ill-advised obsession with following Mahogany.
Very much in the film’s favor is the fact that Leon’s photographer status is utterly unglamourous. Leon is scrambling to make ends meet, mostly living on the wages of his girlfriend. He may boast an expensive Leica camera, but he has to deal with a makeshift darkroom and hanging his photos to dry on clotheslines set up in their apartment kitchen. In this regard—as in most—Midnight Meat Train is unusually realistic, especially for a film in this genre. Leon and Maya are surprisingly strong characters, and that can be said of most of the film’s rather limited cast, even to the obviously-marked-for-slaughter best friend, Jurgis (Roger Bart) and sex-obsessed art dealer Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields).
None of this is to say that the screenplay is flawless. The scenes where Maya realizes that she’s losing Leon to his obsession with the disappearances of people on the late night subway and the connection to Mahogany are a little sketchy. Her decision to take a hand in the investigation herself is horror 101 with people propelling the plot by indulging in behavior that any 12-year-old could spot as unwise. In that regard, the script becomes merely functional. That said, the scene where she and Jurgis go to search Mahogany’s apartment is both creepy and suspenseful, making the functional nature of it all at least palatable.
The tone of the film is unusual in that it seems to take place in a world largely of its own creation, which is particularly important in that the premise is not only in the realm of the far-fetched, but the photography aspect is a little out of date in our digital world. The fact that the movie seems set in some vague period—it looks like the present, but it doesn’t quite—smooths this over quite nicely. The whole art scene pictured here is not without its interest, especially as concerns the fine line between the tastelessly exploitative and what is perceived by the “fashionable set” as powerful art. There’s more than a hint of that world being satirized.
Much of what works about Midnight Meat Train is thanks to the direction of Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura. I’m unfamiliar with Kitamura’s other films, but here is a rare case where I have no real issue to take with the claims of the trailer that Kitamura is “visionary.” The term visionary is tossed around so freely these days (Zack Snyder? Shane Ackerman?) that it has virtually no meaning. In Kitamura’s case, it actually does mean something.
I’m not exactly in love with the film’s grey-green color scheme—though it makes sense as an evocation of a largely fluorescent lit setting—but there’s more here than that in terms of the style of Midnight Meat Train, which does manage to effectively use splashes of color in the midst of its generally limited palette. Kitamura actually knows how to compose an image for maximum impact. His use of moving camera—especially in the elaborate overhead shots that move from room to room, and sometimes disorientingly from location to location—is striking and original. Even his manipulations of film speed—both slow and fast motion—have an air of freshness to them, which is remarkable in this age of such interpolations of remonkeyed action. And as a very unexpected bonus, the man can actually stage and photograph coherent actions scenes—an art that has all but ceased to exist in modern film.
As a horror picture plain and simple (though Midnight Meat Train is too convoluted to be called simple), there’s certainly no reason to complain here. The film delivers the goods in terms of graphic, bloody and quite brutal horror. This is one of the bloodier films in recent memory, and yet it is never goes into the area of torture porn. The film doesn’t linger over pain for its own sake and isn’t in the least sadistic in the manner of so much that passes for horror these days. Oh, it’s nasty enough—make no mistake. This is not a film for the squeamish, and I can easily imagine people who would be offended by its in your face bloodiness. I can also imagine a good many viewers who would be turned off by its occasional outbursts of dark-hued splattery comedy, especially the fate of the Jurgis character. Put bluntly, if bloody horror and the occasional flying eyeball aren’t your flagon of grue, this isn’t your movie.
Where would I put Midnight Meat Train if this was a regular review? I’d be tussling with myself over three and a half and four stars. In terms of the kind of movie it is, I lean toward the full four, if only because it works as a horror picture, but does so in a reasonably adult, yet agreeably outrageous, manner. That’s not something we see every day. As anything other than a horror film, however, it’s probably more of the three and a half star accomplishment. Am I cutting the film more slack because of the shabby way in which it was handled? Maybe a little, but overall I don’t think so. I don’t think so simply because I really didn’t expect that much out of the film, even though I was annoyed by the studio doing its damndest to keep me from finding out for myself. In the end, the actual quality of the film came as a very agreeable surprise.
Equally interesting is the film’s somewhat unusual, but very effective musical score by Johannes Kobilke and Robb Williamson. I’m utterly unfamiliar with their work, but note that 2008 seems to have been particularly unkind to them in terms of exposure, since they also scored Pathology, another horror thriller (which I haven’t seen) that vanished before it played just about anywhere. Their work here is certainly noteworthy if you’re looking—or listening—for something out of the ordinary in film scoring.
All in all, I’d call Midnight Meat Train a badly needed infusion of fresh blood in a genre that has become both rather stale and distastesful in recent years. On any level you care to name, this is better than any Saw movie, better than anything signed by Eli Roth, better than the remake parade of The Hills Have Eyes, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th, etc. This is stylish, nicely nasty horror filmmaking. How it will stand up in the coming years and on subsequent viewings, I have no idea. But if you’re a fan of the genre, you really should see Midnight Meat Train for yourself.