Feb 11 2009

New review: The Midnight Meat Train

The Midnight Meat Train. What a perfectly descriptive and accurate title. The name alone should have secured this Clive Barker adaptation a theatrical release. In a youth film culture that has embraced increasingly violent and sadistic horror films, especially those that linger on acts of inhuman brutality and excruciatingly endured mutilations (quite accurately dubbed “torture porn”), what’s not to like about a film about a silent butcher who bludgeons the passengers of a late-night subway ride, preps the carcasses like slaughtered cattle and hangs them like sides of beef? Lionsgate, which turned the trap-and-torture Saw series into a lucrative franchise, apparently thought this was too much and dumped it directly into a hundred or so second-run theaters last fall, a nominal theatrical release in advance of the inevitable unrated DVD. Because the film was released direct to sub-run houses without a press screening, most newspapers never bothered to review the film. Most of the commentary comes from fan-ish websites and online genre hubs, where the focus is largely on the film’s effects and scare tactics.

Not to make too much of the film, which I caught up with via the unrated DVD, but it’s a gnarly little horror that delivers the grotesque spectacle without the usual brand of sadism. The Butcher, a silent, imposing slab of a man played with impassive focus by Vinnie Jones, kills his victims quickly and efficiently by design (a few put up a fight and take longer), dispatching most with a single blow from a steel hammer. Neither homicidal maniac nor bloodthirsty ghoul, he’s an unspeaking, unemotional servant, a man on a mission that he executes without pleasure or remorse.

Vinnie Jones rides the Midnight Meat Train

Vinnie Jones rides the Midnight Meat Train

The Butcher (identified as Mahogony in the credits but unnamed in the film) is the film’s bogeyman, an ominous golem who patiently and deliberately stakes out his space in the chaos of activity around him. Leon (Bradley Cooper), a street photographer who chases police calls for a living but prefers to document the underbelly of urban life (“I want to capture the heart of the city,” he explains to coolly powerful art world maven Brooke Shields), is the nominal hero. In terms of this film, it means he becomes obsessed with the Butcher, shadowing his movements from home (a gloomy hotel) to work (a commercial slaughterhouse hidden in a dinghy alley) to his nightly nocturnal rides on the subway. His waitress girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) is disturbed by his obsession, which takes root in his mind like an infection. Or maybe it’s a kind of vaccine. After surviving one run-in at the slaughterhouse, Leon follows the Butcher on a midnight ride and catches him in the act on a subway train, and is in turn caught by the Butcher, who… lets him go. With a rune carved in his chest. A warning? Or part of a transformation? (The ordeal has already given this once-vegan a taste for beef. Cooked rare.)

The Midnight Meat Train is the American feature debut of Japanese style-bomber Ryuhei Kitamura, whose previous films have been more visually inventive than narratively involving. His breakthrough Film, Versus, set a simple premise (gangsters, zombies, samurai, time travel and timeless struggle between good and evil) and then took off on a track of pure visceral momentum: a perpetual motion action film! Faced with the silliness of Godzilla: Final Wars (blithely campy and lusciously cheesy even by the standards of the franchise’s lost years), Kitamura throws human martial battles, high-flying stunts and CGI doodling into the monster smackdown and runs with it. For all the visual tricks and show-off set pieces of murder, mayhem and butcher battles, The Midnight Meat Train is downright disciplined for Kitamura. The above-ground portion of the film is bathed in the 20-watt dim and grim urban depression of “Seven” – there’s not a ray of sunshine to break through the gloom even in daylight – while the subterranean world is cast in the cadaverous, pale blue glow of florescent lights.

Faced with a series of murders in the confines of a subway car, Kitamura goes for stylistic gymnastics (one murder is viewed from the victim’s lurching POV as he batters her skull until it flies off, rolls down the aisle and stares back at its dislocated body – and that’s not even the end of his tricks for this shot) and shock and awe effects. Most are startling in their abruptness (his hammerblow attack on an early victim is as stark as any horror movie murder, and also calls to mind the eerie, unreal imagery of Japanese horror), some go for blood-soaked gore (who washes these cars down at night, anyway?) and at least one borders on cartoonish overkill: in a fanish tribute to The Evil Dead films, an animated eyeball pops out of victim Ted Raimi’s head and into the camera, where it “bounces” off the lens. Back above ground, on a reconnaissance mission in the Butcher’s apartment, Kitamura sends the camera floating above the floor plan in his best Brian DePalma quote.

The Butcher at work

The Butcher at work

But that’s all flourish. The story is in the workaday attitude of the Butcher: his practiced routine, his meticulous attention, his dispassionate relationship to the victims, who are literally nothing more than meat to him. It’s meat that gets his respectful attention and meat that lies at the center of the story of both the Butcher and the film, which turns subway trains into cattle cars and slaughterhouses and sends them to the end of the line, both figuratively and literally. The sexy, playful relationship between Leon and Maya is the only spark in this dusky world and Leon’s obsession with the Butcher, and his increasing contact with the raw meat of his horror, smothers that spark. You could say fate switches Leon’s tracks and sends him on a whole new destination.

The Midnight Meat Train is not particularly scary or suspenseful, but it’s remarkably effective and, when it finally arrives at the end of the line (I won’t reveal the explanation here), admirably simple. A lot of online reviews have labeled it a cheap twist or a gimmick (as if the bloody spectacle of blood and dismemberment is the story), but it’s at the heart of the story. There’s a pitiless order to Barker’s universe – the butcher isn’t a sadist, merely an employee with a dirty job and a grim efficiency – and Kitamura gets the dispassionate balance between good and evil through sacrifice (in all senses of the term) and service. As in Lovecraft’s universe, the truth doesn’t set you free. As Leon discovers, it either kills you or dooms you. The Butcher is a horror movie Sisyphus whose dispassionate acts of murder are but misdemeanors in the cosmic balance sheets, a necessary evil to prevent a greater one. Maybe that (largely conceptual) moral murkiness is what scared Lionsgate off of a wide theatrical release. Or maybe it was the flying eyeball.

The DVD release is Tuesday, February 17. The film was released theatrically with an R rating and a 98-minute running time. The DVD presents the unrated director’s cut, which runs just a couple of minutes longer. Director Ryuhei Kitamura and author/executive producer Clive Barker provide a lively commentary track. Barker has a lot to say about horror stories and movies and enjoys talking to Kitamura (who speaks accented but fluent English) about his visual ideas and the cuts he made to get the original R rating. Barker talks more about his work in the 14-minute featurette “Clive Barker: The Man Behind the Myth” and the Ted Raimi eyeball scene gets deconstructed in “Anatomy of a Murder Scene.”

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