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 our first screening, “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.
The screenplay by Jeff Buhler (whose only other credit is a direct-to-video horror picture calledInsanitarium, 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.
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.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Midnight Meat Train Thursday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critic Ken Hanke .