Lionsgate // 2008 // 100 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 17th, 2009
The most terrifying ride you'll ever take
Midnight Meat Train. Roll those words around in your mouth. Those double m's and triple t's just falling off the tongue. Then there's that juxtaposition of images: meat and all its organic associations butting heads with trains, one of the more marvelous mechanical inventions of mankind. All this happens after that Midnight of the title, that time when night becomes day and strange things begin to happen. This is the kind of thing Clive Barker does best: peeling back the civilized trappings of life -- like trains -- to expose the dark, meaty heart beneath. Adapting his own Hellraiser, Barker showed that there's cinematic potential for his cracked vision of the world, but no one has lived up to that potential since. Although The Midnight Meat Train soaks the screen in even more gore than that original Hellraiser, it forgets to bring along all the truly scary implications from Barker's story, leaving a slasher/torture-porn hybrid that's long on CGI blood and short on anything else.
Leon (Bradley Cooper, Wedding Crashers) travels the city streets with his trusty Leica, trying to capture the true heart of the city on film. Although he's a struggling artist, he has the support of his girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb, The Skulls), who uses a mutual friend's contacts to get Leon's work in front of one of the city's most influential art dealers, Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields, Suddenly Susan). She's unimpressed with Leon's images, but sees that he has talent. This encourages Leon to attempt more night shoots, prowling around the city's underbelly looking for city's darker elements. While on the subway, he encounters a young model being accosted by some thugs. He scares the thugs away, but reads in the next morning's paper that the woman has gone missing. His images from that night catch Susan's eye, and she agrees to give Leon a part in her new show if he can capture two more comparable images. This puts him on the trail of Mahogany (Vinnie Jones, Snatch), a creepy butcher who rides the subway late at night. As Leon digs he discovers that this butcher might be connected to the disappearance of the model, as well as hundreds of other people going back at least a century. This knowledge may cost him his life.
I first read "The Midnight Meat Train" in the first volume of Clive Barker's Books of Blood. It wasn't my favorite story in the book, but that title certainly stuck with me. I was also impressed by the story's themes, that we pay a price for living in such concentrated groups when we build gigantic cities. There was also a certain condemnation of those who go "slumming," looking for the dark side of the city while living in comfort. It also reminded me of one of my favorite Harlan Ellison stories, "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," and it had some great descriptions of gore. Sadly, little but the gore and the title made it into the film.
I know my summary above might make it sound like The Midnight Meat Train is some kind of mystery, but it's not. The audience knows who the killer is from very early on. His motivations, however, remain unclear, and the film tries to generate some suspense about this conundrum as Leon tries to understand the murders. By film's end, though, the viewer is still left in the dark about the significance of Mahogany and his acts. Sure, we know because of the title that he's on the meat train, and meat has to get eaten by someone, but the motivations of the butcher and his employers remains opaque. There were a few moments, late in the film, where I was actually interested in the outcome of the plot, but I was ultimately disappointed by a silly ending that, while true to Barker's story, failed to provide any of the resonance.
So, with the story utterly failing to satisfy, we're left with the killing. The scenes on the titular train demonstrate a deft hand in the visual department. However, any good will generated by the director's visual flair is completely snuffed by the lackluster CGI gore. Karo syrup and food coloring would have looked more realistic. Every time someone was killed on the screen, I kept expecting cartoon birds to fly around the victim's head to match the animated blood. There were a few good prosthetics here and there, as well as some cool weapons, but any interest they generated was wasted each time another person had goofy blood flowing down their face.
Finally, the film is just too darn long. It was a short story to begin with, and it didn't need to be 100 minutes. If 20 minutes of fat had been trimmed, especially the stuff between kills, then The Midnight Meat Train would be a much better cinematic snack.
I can't really knock the acting in The Midnight Meat Train. Everyone on screen does a decent job making their characters come alive. I almost want Vinnie Jones to expand his range a bit, but he's so darn good playing the creepy heavy that I don't care if he plays the same character for the rest of his life. Leslie Bibb turns the thankless role as the main character's girlfriend into a nuanced character. Bradley Cooper doesn't have much to do in the film but wander around determined and bewildered, but he does that job just fine.
I also can't complain too much about this Blu-ray version of the film. The video is a little noisy, but at least it's consistent so that it gives the film a gritty, lived in feel. There are a lot of dark scenes, and they can get a little dicey, but overall detail is high and the film is very watchable. I'm not usually one to pay much attention to sound; if the dialogue is easy to hear I'm usually fine. However, I was very impressed with the sound quality of this DTS 7.1 mix. The train's rumbles and movements were remarkably clear, and there was surprising directionality across the soundscape. The low end had a menace that gave the film some much-needed credibility.
The extras are fairly slim, but exactly the right ones. There's an audio commentary with the film's director and Clive Barker. They talk about the difficulties the film had both in production and during distribution, where it was unceremoniously dropped in second-run theaters. The next big extra is an interview with Barker where he discusses his story collection Books of Blood as well as adapting stories for the screen. There is also a pair of featurettes, one that focuses on one of the train murders, and the other takes on the creation of Mahogany. Considering the film's box-office performance, this is a surprisingly complete collection of extras.
The Midnight Meat Train could have been a gorehound's dream. Instead, an excess of muddled story and CGI keep the film from being particularly scary or even interesting. The director, Kitamura, shows promise for his interesting visual style, but there just isn't enough substance here to warrant a recommendation. However, if you have to see The Midnight Meat Train, then this Blu-ray disc is the way to go because of its solid technical presentation and informative extras.
Guilty of gutting a good story, leaving the audience with little to watch other than CGI blood.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Unrated