Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The murder of the ‘Midnight Meat Train’

Last September, I had the misfortune of sitting through Good Luck Chuck. The sole positive thing to emerge from that experience was seeing the trailer for Midnight Meat Train. OK, so the trailer is absurd in the extreme. “It began with an act of unthinkable evil,” lies the grave-voiced announcer, since quite obviously somebody (presumably Clive Barker) thought of it. It then announces it’s from “the legendary mind of Clive Barker,” which raises the question of whether Barker is legendary, or just his mind.

As for doing anything more than establishing the basic premise of a photographer (Bradley Cooper) in search of a killer (Vinnie Jones) who murders people on the subway and then apparently disposes of the corpses as meat, the trailer is nothing more than a random series of largely incomprehensible, but horrifically suggestive bits and pieces. In other words, the film itself could go either way. But that title! Good Lord! Has there ever been such a marvelous title? It’s even better if you hear the announcer on the trailer intone it oh so ominously. So I settled in for the day I could take that ride on the Midnight Meat Train. I’m still waiting.

In the meantime, I did a little background reasearch on the film and found that it was based on a story of the same title in one of Barker’s Books of Blood. I’ve read some Barker, though not a great deal and not in some time. Still, I think I’d remember if I’d read a story called “Midnight Meat Train.” Checking out director Ryuhei Kitamura—whom the trailer calls “visionary”—told me nothing, since I’ve never seen any of his films—visionary or otherwise. That’s really not terribly surprising, since most Asian horror leaves me cold and I’m not prone to keeping track of it.

Then the film gets a release date—May 2008. But things have shifted within Lionsgate—the company responsible for the movie—in the meantime. The man who helped bring Midnight Meat Train to the screen, executive producer Peter Block is out. New studio president Joe Drake (who had been with Lionsgate six years earlier) is in—and Drake has this movie he produced for Rogue Pictures, The Strangers, coming out on the same day. It’s in Drake’s favor not to have another horror picture released the same day as his, so Midnight Meat Train gets moved to a new date. For reasons I will never understand, The Strangers turns out to be a huge hit, helping to make Drake look good, even if this big hit is for another company. Drake still gets the credit.

Moving Midnight Meat Train—even to August 1 making it part of the August dumping season—wasn’t unreasonable. It was likely just as much in its favor as it was the competing film not to open on the same day, despite the fact that May is a much more desirable date. But what happens next becomes increasingly perplexing.

As the movie’s release date drew nearer, the announcement came that Lionsgate were considering giving it a limited release—a very unusual move for a horror picture. Traditionally, horror movies go wide and make their biggest take on opening weekend. The idea of a platform release where word of mouth builds an audience seemed an unlikely notion for a movie called Midnight Meat Train. The Hours, sure, but Midnight Meat Train? Well, that wasn’t the idea anyway as it turned out.

The idea was simply to give the movie a token theatrical release (because of a contractual commitment to co-producers Lakeshore Entertainment) and then send it on its way to DVD. And that might have happened if Clive Barker and horror film websites had kept quiet about it, but they didn’t. Outraged over the treatment of the film, they spoke out. Barker asked people to contact Lionsgate and ask them—politely—to rethink the move. What this resulted in is even more peculiar. Not only did the limited release take place—with no advertising—but the film was further humiliated by being dumped into 102 “dollar houses” and second-run theaters. This move assured Midnight Meat Train the status that Drake apparently wanted all along—that of a stunning flop. (And all the while, the official line was that Lionsgate wanted the film to do well.)

Realistically, some of this isn’t surprising. Anyone who works in the area where the arts brush up against corporate politics probably knows the territory. In my own experience, I’ve had at least two book deals fall through when there was a regime change in the editorial department. Put bluntly, the new editorial staff has no interest in taking over a project that’s been shepherded by their predecessors. If the project is a success, chances are that everyone will remember it was started by the previous crew. If it fails, the previous crew isn’t there to blame, so the failure falls on the current staff, who have compounded their failure by not realizing what a bad idea it was in the first place. It’s a lose-lose scenario for the new guys. But there’s a significant difference between an unwritten book in pre-contractual negotiations and a few million dollars worth of finished feature film.

All the same, studio politics are strange. They always have been and they probably always will be. Yes, it was in Joe Drake’s own best interest for the film to fail. As reported on Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily, “Drake has a vested interest in making Block’s movies look bad at the box office.” Interestingly, however, Finke is responding to the announcement that under this new regime Lionsgate will be “moving away from this genre of films in favor of more mainstream fare like Tyler Perry.” Just how mainstream Perry is is a separate issue, since his films target a very specific demographic, cost little to make and easily turn a profit. More interesting is the idea that Drake may be seen as taking some kind of artistic and moral highground here. That’s not exactly something that fits the facts.

First of all, there’s the whole business of Drake jockeying for the success of his horror picture, The Strangers, back in May. And while Drake has some classy titles of note on his resume—Stranger Than Fiction and Juno stand out—his name also festoons such titles as The Grudge, Boogeyman, The Grudge 2 and The Messengers. Granting that his predecessor might have the edge in grisliness with the Saw franchise, See No Evil and The Devil’s Rejects, it’s not exactly like Drake’s hands are blood-free when it comes to horror. For that matter, it appears that Lionsgate is going ahead with their annual Halloween release of a Saw picture. And really, how much high-ground—moral or artistic or even common decency—can any studio releasing Disaster Movie next week claim?

Even supposing for a minute that Drake’s intentions are “honorable” and what he really wants is to make “quality” movies (if you consider Tyler Perry’s movies quality), he might do well to cast his mind back to 1936 and a fellow named Charles R. Rogers. The name will mean little to anyone outside of hardcore movie fans, but Charles R. Rogers became head of production at Universal Pictures in 1936 when the Laemmle family (who founded the studio) lost the business to Standard Capital, because they were unable to pay back a loan. The old Laemmle era logo of the airplane circling the globe was replaced with a shiny lucite globe, twirling stars and a fanfare, while the studio was rechristened “New Universal.”

Now, Universal was a studio that was perpetually on verge of insolvency in the 1930s. They kept going on a handful of prestige pictures—usually made by John M. Stahl or James Whale—and their now legendary series of horror movies—four of which were also made by Whale. Enter Charles R. Rogers, who had formerly been in charge of a string of largely (and deservedly) forgotten B pictures at Paramount. Well, Rogers hated horror pictures, which had come under some considerable critical and censorial fire at the time owing to the “excesses” (a relative term) of such movies as The Raven and Bride of Frankenstein. He used this to simply drop horror films from the studio’s line-up altogether.

What Rogers brought to the table instead—aside from Deanna Durbin, who became the studio’s only asset—was a glut of bad B movies and OK mysteries that no one had much interest in seeing. This is also why Rogers was only head of production from 1936 to 1938—and why horror pictures made a big comeback in 1939, once more saving Universal’s hash. (This, by the way, is only part of the damage Rogers did, but it’s sufficient for our purposes here.) It’s hardly unthinkable that Drake could find himself in a similar position not too far down the road.

But what of the central issue of Midnight Meat Train? Well, that saga is still playing out—and it gets no less curious. As R-rated horror films go (they usually get trashed out of hand), it has a surprisingly high review ranking on Rotten Tomatoes. However, it’s worth noting that there are only nine reviews to date, and some of the good reviews are from horror sites, who all too often overpraise any horror picture thinking it’s just generally good for the genre. (It isn’t, guys. It just makes you lack credibility.) Still, the fact that Variety weighed in with a positive review is intriguing.

It’s possible, however, to glean something of the tone of the film from those reviews. Rob Nelson’s Variety review is very telling—“Before flying off the rails in the final curve,The Midnight Meat Train rolls quite smoothly as a mid-‘80s-style psycho-killer thriller a la The Hitcher Despite ample gore, including a popping eyeball better suited to 3-D, Lionsgate’s modest slasher hews closer in style to its recent Bug than to its Saw series.” For the dozen or so people who actually saw William Friedkin’s extremely disturbing (in a good way) Bug, that suggests that this is not your everyday garden variety horror movie. Even the statement about the ending—“the patently ridiculous last reel, in which the purpose of the slaughterer’s human meat collection is revealed as well”—intrigues when combined with the icy reception afforded Alexandre Aja’s Mirrors last week. There seems to be a tendency at the moment to be out of sympathy with supernatural horror and the more fantastic aspects of the genre.

Luke Y. Thompson (a horror fan without being a “fanboy”) on LYT’s Weblog is more sympathetic to the over-the-top nature of the ending, saying, “When it comes to the utterly insane ending, there’s a big challenge there in that what was written in the original story is the sort of thing that works better in the imagination than when actually shown, but all told it’s passable, and wins points for being so out of left field.” Other comments he makes about a “secret society” bear out the promise of some of the more horrifically tantalizing glimpses offered in the trailer, making them just much more…tantalizing. At the same time, Thompson makes it clear that part of the storyline works on the stock horror movie premise that requires the hero doing improbably stupid things in order to keep the movie going, though there are hints that that may, for once, end up being at least partly justified.

Quite the most positive review comes from Scott Weinberg of Cinematical. Weinberg is a huge movie enthusiast in general—not specifically a horror fan, but one who seems to appreciate all genres to one degree or another. He calls Midnight Meat Train “certainly one of the most effective horror films of the year,” which, in itself, is faint praise. He also warns—repeatedly—that it’s a “horror fans only” affair that’s too dark and grim for the PG-13 teen crowd. And he applauds the choices made by the filmmakers, “But let’s hear it for the filmmakers who still insist on pushing the envelope, giving the horror fans something dark and challenging, and focusing more on mood, atmosphere, and scares more than in catering to the widest audience possible.”

Except for Variety the few print reviews have been negative, but unless you know the individual critic well, it’s as foolish to take a “mainstream” review of a horror picture at face value as it is to accept the fannish gush on horror sites. None of this actually tells us whether the film is good or bad really, but it does make it just that much more intriguing—something that hints that there are more studio politics at work here than there is a studio trying to get rid of a bad movie with as little fuss as possible. (Ironically, they’ve only managed to create a much bigger fuss in the process.)

With this in mind—and the fact that I just want to see the damned thing—I did a great deal of pleading and cajoling and general whining to get Midnight Meat Train booked locally. It worked—or so it seemed. Then it was revealed that I wanted the film to get here early enough that I could review it before it opened—for a very brief run. Suddenly, it wasn’t working so well any longer. Lionsgate flatly told the booker that they didn’t want the movie reviewed. So an alternate plan was hatched—whereupon Lionsgate started making very unusual (to say the least) stipulations concerning renting the film to the theater in question. As it stands now, the situation is in limbo, but the probability of Midnight Meat Train playing theatrically here is very slim.

And this leaves us where? I guess it leaves us waiting for the DVD, but even here things are a bit on the murky side. The idea that Midnight Meat Train would be given a quick contractual lip-service release and then rushed to DVD doesn’t seem to be quite true either. If it’s being rushed to DVD, there’s no sign of it. Amazon shows no DVD release date pending, while other online DVD retailers like DVD Empire and Deep Discount DVD show no results at all if you search for the title. Now, if you were releasing this title, would you sit on it, or would you take advantage of the publicity generated by the way its theatrical release was handled? Exactly—unless, of course, the idea is to set the film up to fail yet again. At least that’s the way it looks from here.

The idea that’s occasionally put forth that Midnight Meat Train is simply bad really won’t wash. Studios—including Lionsgate—aren’t reticent about foisting even the most jaw-droppingly awful rubbish on the public on a weekly basis. Good Lord, the not-exactly-a-remake of Prom Night came out this past Tuesday. Does anything else need to be said? So we sit back and see what happens and when, but I suppose we can take heart that Lionsgate will give us Disaster Movie next week, and, of course, it’s less than a month till we get their latest Tyler Perry opus. Life is just full of compensations.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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17 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The murder of the ‘Midnight Meat Train’

  1. ncain

    Years ago I read the story this movie is based on, and it seems like a rather thin premise for a feature film. It goes like this: Mundane beginning, episode of unexpected, brutal violence, twist ending. To drag that out for two hours you’d have to really extend that middle part. (Oh, and the twist ending may or may not be some sort of parody of anti-semetic ideas about New York.)

  2. “Years ago I read the story this movie is based on, and it seems like a rather thin premise for a feature film. It goes like this: Mundane beginning, episode of unexpected, brutal violence, twist ending. To drag that out for two hours you’d have to really extend that middle part. (Oh, and the twist ending may or may not be some sort of parody of anti-semetic ideas about New York.)”

    And yet this film is supposed to be worse than the shlock that Lion’s Gate passes for horror these days?

  3. ncain

    I have no basis for judging if it’s worse than other horror movies because I don’t generally watch them.

    I will say that I did misspell semitic in my initial comment, though.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Well, I’ve heard the story referred to as intensely homoerotic in its underpinnings, but I’ve never enocountered anything that referenced it being anti-semitic. I’m moderately sure that I haven’t read the story (if I did, it’s a long time ago), but the whole thing has intrigued me enough by now that I ordered the volume that contains the story, so I’ll remedy this soon enough.

    As for it being thin, hard to tell. I’m sure it’s been expanded, but then again Joe Drake’s production of The Strangers — which was a big hit — consists of no more than unknown psychos terrorize a couple for kicks for 90 minutes. The payoff is supposed to be surprising, but it isn’t. Now that’s thin.

  5. Kevin F.

    I had a chance to see this at a Carmike-owned, second run theater called “Blue Ridge Cinemas,” located about 10 minutes from where I live in Raleigh. The film struck me as being somewhere between most genres of contemporary horror fare. There were certainly “ridiculous” (violent, over the top, slightly punny, etc) moments, there is a bit of unsettling bodily torture, and the intrigue/mystery aspect is somewhere between DON’T LOOK NOW/DEATH IN VENICE/most J Horror/RAW MEAT (though not nearly as good as any of those three films just named by title). It is worth a look even for people who don’t normal stray into the horror genre. It was obviously done a bit on the cheap and certainly looks (in terms of cinematography, grayness/drabness of film stock, etc) as if it could have gone straight to DVD. Glad I had a chance to see it in the theater.

    In general, though, I think that the movie is more interesting for this bizarre release situation than for what it says as a film.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Aw, come on, Kevin! It has to at least move faster than Death in Venice! So it’s got that in its favor. (I know I’m supposed to like Death in Venice, but I think I’d rather watch algae grow on a tree sloth.)

    Even so, I’m glad to get a first-hand report. The question in my mind is whether it looks more like something that “could have gone straight to DVD” than. say, a Saw picture or The Strangers, etc.? Not that there’s automatically anything wrong with something going straight to video, as witness Stuart Gordon’s The Pit and the Pendulum. In any case, I’m getting the sense that there’s nothing about the film so cosmically God-awful that it should have been kept from view by the studio out of embarassment.

  7. Kevin F.

    Yeah, direct-to-DVD is not necessarily an early death for a film. It absolutely did not deserve the treatment it got. It is not an especially literate or literary horror film, but it does aspire to more than, say, a SAW film. There are a lot of thematic references to other films. During one sequence I had flashbacks to watching Franju’s BLOOD OF BEASTS. And I think that it is safe to say that this solidifies Vinnie Jones’ claim to being one of the best movie monsters who doesn’t need make-up. Also see his grunting performance in TOOTH & NAIL.

    I would say that it looks less “processed” than a SAW or HOSTEL type film. I know that those films intend to show a grittiness that wants its viewers to use the misunderstood “R” word (realism), but I often feel that the cinematographers and directors go to great lengths to fabricate a style that is supposed to seem immediate and “real,” but leaves me feeling like I’m watching a movie whose stock has been dropped in a pot of grayish-green coffee.

  8. ncain

    “Well, I’ve heard the story referred to as intensely homoerotic in its underpinnings, but I’ve never enocountered anything that referenced it being anti-semitic. I’m moderately sure that I haven’t read the story (if I did, it’s a long time ago), but the whole thing has intrigued me enough by now that I ordered the volume that contains the story, so I’ll remedy this soon enough.”

    Let me clarify. I was not accusing Barker of writing an anti semitic story.

    SPOILER ALERT (at least for the story. I have no idea how the movie ends)

    I was saying that the twist at the end could be interpreted as a parody of those ideas. It invovles a cabal of deformed flesh eating monsters that secretly rule New York.

  9. Ken Hanke

    I rather suspected that was more what you were getting at (you did call it a parody — or possible parody).

    My copy of the story arrived a few minutes ago. Unfortunately, I’m shortly due at the library for Miller’s Crossing so it will have to wait until later tonight.

  10. Ch

    I read the story years ago, and it was interesting.
    I saw the film 2 nights ago. They did a good job of taking the short story and filling the 90 or so minutes.
    It was definitely MUCH better than any of the Saw movies!
    It’s definitely for fans of the genre, but it was nicely shot, and had a couple of truly disturbing moments.
    Glad to finally find out why the movie got dumped.
    It’s such a shame, the movie was MUCH better than Mirrors!!!

    And I despise Tyler Perry films.

  11. Ken Hanke

    Glad to hear from someone else who was able to see this! (Gotta admit, though, that I actually liked Mirrors — even with its sometimes howlingly bad dialogue [“Don’t make me threaten you”].)

  12. Ken Hanke

    I often feel that the cinematographers and directors go to great lengths to fabricate a style that is supposed to seem immediate and “real,” but leaves me feeling like I’m watching a movie whose stock has been dropped in a pot of grayish-green coffee.

    It is perhaps an unfortunate sign of our age that “realism” has come to be equated with drabness and ugliness for its own sake. Based on the trailer for Midnight Meat Train and the stills (a surprising number of them for a film so ill-treated), I’m assuming it has a cold look, but it doesn’t look exactly drab.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Having now read the short story (and, no, I hadn’t read it before), I can see — taken in conjunction with what I know about the film — how it was expanded to feature length. It ought to work. In fact, making it into a kind of detective thing should make it play with more suspense than is afforded by the short story (assuming it doesn’t make it dull). I can also see — if you’re not prepared to just go with the fantastic in a horror picture — why the ending hasn’t gone over well with some critics.

  14. Nick Jones

    I can see where the ending might cause a problem. I’ve always had a cinematic mind, and I never could quite visualise how the awe the lead feels at the climax of the story could successfully be put across to an audience (although the last moments before Colonel Breen fires in “Quatermass and the Pit” comes close.)

    What caused a problem for ME, when I first heard about the film, was that the lead had been changed to a photojournalist, with a girlfriend, who was going to track down the killer. Have we not yet grown beyond the “every film must have a hero with a love interest” stage? I like the story better with the character being an ordinary shmoe who had the plain bad luck to get on the wrong subway car, and who had to dig deep to find his survival instincts.

    Imagine how Hollywood would totally ruin “In the Hills, The Cities”.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Well, a friend of mine sent me a DVD-R of the film taken off Fearnet or some such. The time of year — with SEFCA voting (that’s out of the way) and the Big Year End Releases and remonkeyed writing deadlines — is not conducive to sitting down with it and giving it a shot. That’s probably unfair, since it could end up on my 10 best list if I see it in time — well, no maybe not. Truly, though, it’s finally been given a DVD release date of Feb. 17 (at the absurd price of $28.98) and I think I might hold off for that.

    My feeling about the girlfriend and the photographer business is pretty ambivalent. Something had to be added to beef the story up. I’ll hold off judgment till I see how it’s handled.

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