Tuesday, October 14, 2008
THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN
Down the subway steps, token in hand. Through the automatic gates. The smell of the tunnels was in his nostrils now. Not the smell of the deep tunnels of course. They had a scent all of their own. But there was reassurance even in the stale electric air of this shallow line. The regurgitated breath of a million travellers circulated in this warren, mingling with the breath of creatures far older; things with voices soft like clay, whose appetites were abominable. How he loved it. The scent, the dark, the thunder.
So, for whatever reason they may have had—petty studio politics, or a conscious attempt of a studio to move towards more mainstream fare—this one was screwed by Lionsgate in the US, dumped into a pitiful 102 dollar and second-run theatres simply to fulfill contractual obligations.
I can only hope that this finds blazing life on DVD, because it certainly deserves it.
Based on Clive Barker’s short story from his landmark Books of Blood collection, Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train finds struggling photographer Leon Kaufman (Alias and Kitchen Confidential’s Bradley Cooper) on the brink of staking out some wall space at a group exhibit by noted art dealer Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields); all he needs is to “capture the heart of the city.”
But what happens when a city’s heart isn’t exactly pure?
We all know what Nietzsche said about staring into abysses, yes?
New York was just a city.
He had seen her wake in the morning like a slut, and pick murdered men from between her teeth, and suicides from the tangles of her hair. He had seen her late at night, her dirty back streets shamelessly courting depravity. He had watched her in the hot afternoon, sluggish and ugly, indifferent to the atrocities that were being committed every hour in her throttled passages.
It’s Cooper’s portrayal of Leon—in tandem with that of Popular’s Leslie Bibb (who plays Leon’s supportive girlfriend Maya)—that serves to ground this dark tale of servitude and ritual and death, as the photographer finds himself spiraling into the shadows of the inner workings of the vast metropolis, where people go missing every day, some never to be found again.
The chemistry between Cooper and Bibb brings a warm and tender life to the couple, making them genuine and real, thus making the inexorable slide to the film’s brutal climax all the harder.
The horror in Midnight Meat Train can be found just as much in Leon’s descent into obsession and the gradual fraying of his relationship with Maya, as it can in the spectacularly over-the-top gore, delivered on-screen by a silently scowling Vinnie Jones, who plays the butcher Mahogany.
Another reason why I so looked forward to this adaptation was because Jonathan Sela was the cinematographer on-board, and though I do feel he captured more striking and riveting imagery in The Omen remake and in Rohtenburg (review in Archive), Sela’s contribution here is nonetheless undeniable.
Kitamura—who brought us Versus and Azumi—is the kind of director who needs a great cinematographer to bring his wild visions to the screen, and Sela certainly does that.
“We are the City fathers,” the thing said. “And mothers, and daughters and sons. The builders, the law-makers. We made this city.”
“New York?” said Kaufman. The Palace of Delights?
“Before you were born, before anyone living was born.”
If there’s somewhere Midnight Meat Train falters, it’s in not quite living up to the portrayal of New York-as-moral cesspool that Barker nailed down so eloquently with his brilliant prose in the short story; the setting doesn’t quite crystallize into its own seedy character here.
There’s also the climax, which doesn’t manage to convey the awful breadth and enormity of the horror that lies beneath the streets of New York, Leon’s “Palace of Delights.”
It’s as if, post-9/11, the thought of emphasizing the depiction of the city as something built on the foundations of an ancient—and on-going—inhumanity seemed in, ahem, bad taste.
Whether or not that was part of the reasoning behind screenwriter Jeff Buhler’s choices when he adapted the short story, it’s ultimately still an aspect of the film that doesn’t work as well as I’d hoped.
Which is not to say the final stretch of the third act goes all pussy on us, mind. There’s still some wild bits in there; it’s just not as potent as the source material.
Sadly, we also don’t get that chilling “original American” moment…
Beyond its ability to successfully capture certain aspects of the short story, there’s also the matter of the underutilization of Roger Bart, who doesn’t really do much here.
I’m also not quite sold on the film’s use of CGI, particularly in the train bits…
The meat of her back had been entirely cleft open from neck to buttock and the muscle had been peeled back to expose the glistening vertebrae. It was the final triumph of The Butcher’s craft. Here they hung, these shaved, bled, slit slabs of humanity, opened up like fish, and ripe for devouring.
Still and all, The Midnight Meat Train is worth a look-see, whether or not you’re a Barker fan.
It’s also a very promising sign for the upcoming adaptations from the Books of Blood collection, Anthony DiBlasi’s Dread, John Harrison’s Book of Blood, Pig Blood Blues, and The Madonna (the last two still without attached directors, as far as I know).
After that initial cinematic flurry back in the day which included the first two Hellraiser films, Nightbreed, Candyman, and Lord of Illusions, Barker’s name has been mostly absent from big screen horror. (Yes, he produced the excellent, Oscar-nominated Gods and Monsters, but that wasn’t a horror movie.)
Barker’s inactivity on the film front is a crime as far as I’m concerned, considering all the blackly wondrous sights he’s brought to the screen in the past, whether as director or as the writer whose work has been adapted.
I’d still like to see that Director’s Cut of Nightbreed, or actually have Barker in the director’s chair again (though he’s gone on the record to say that this isn’t anywhere on his to-do list at the moment), but barring that, excellent adaptations of his fiction certainly sound delectable to me.
Yes, there have been some less-than-thrilling ones: Rawhead Rex, anyone? But when it’s a Candyman, how can you argue with that?
And yes, I’m still waiting for that Thief of Always adaptation…
There was a horrible familiarity about this ritual. It rang a bell—not in Kaufman’s conscious mind, but in his deeper, older self.
His feet, no longer obeying his mind, but his instinct to worship, moved. He walked through the corridor of bodies and stepped out of the train.
(The Midnight Meat Train OS and images courtesy of shocktillyoudrop.com.)
(All italicized quotes by Clive Barker, from “The Midnight Meat Train,” Books of Blood Volume One, 1984.)