Lionsgate // 2008 // 100 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // March 6th, 2009
The most terrifying ride you'll ever take.
The Midnight Meat Train is a match made in nerdy heaven. Adapted from a story and produced by horror master Clive Barker (Hellraiser) and directed by kinetic crazy man Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus, Azumi) this gorefest is destined to be a cult classic.
Yes, it lives up to its title. There is a train, it runs after midnight, and it is full of meat. People meat. Dead bodies. Hung up. Being murdered by a man with a gigantic hammer.
Struggling photographer Leon Kauffman (Bradley Cooper, Alias) tries his best to capture the allure, the danger, the reality of the dark city, but his photographs fail to inspire art galleries. Desperate for new material, he prowls the city at night, looking for the seedy underbelly of the city -- much to the consternation of his fiancée Maya (Leslie Bibb, Crossing Jordan).
One night, Leon helps a woman being harassed by teenagers in the subway, and gets some excellent dramatic photographs in the process. However, when he catches an article in the newspaper about her disappearance, Leon is alarmed. Could his photographs hold the key to the woman's fate? Eventually, Leon finds himself on the path of a solemn mute man who rides the subway late at night (Vinnie Jones, Snatch). He carries with him a suitcase full of meat-butchering tools, which he uses to messily dispatch any unfortunate riders unlucky enough to share a subway car with him. He doesn't just kill his victims -- he butchers them, like slabs of meat. Terrified, Leon finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into a dark conspiracy.
Bringing together two creative visionary forces like Clive Barker and Ryuhei Kitamura, the esoteric Japanese director's first American production, is like a dream come true -- at least it was when the project was announced back in 2006. Adapted from a short story from Barker's seminal "Books of Blood" series, horror fans had high hopes for this project. Then Vinnie Jones got cast. Horror fans weren't exactly sure how to react to that one, but still, hope sprang eternal. For a myriad of reasons, some political, Lionsgate seemed to lose their enthusiasm for the project, delaying its theatrical release and eventually scuttling its marketing for the film. The result was a small theatrical run and a shuffle straight to DVD.
A miscalculation by Lionsgate, you ask? It certainly seems that way! The Midnight Meat Train is a well-executed thriller through and through; stylish, visceral, gory, and extremely vicious, it is a constantly paced descent into an endless string of violent encounters. Heads being cracked open by gigantic metal mallets, bodies dismembered like heads of cattle, oh my! Not for the squeamish, this is a nasty, violent film, laden with equal amounts of gooey, slippery red blood that cascades out of bodies in ludicrous amounts and CGI-enhanced blood, which rockets and flies through the air like tiny red comets. It is a beautiful and dreadful thing and horror junkies will be eating it up.
The script gets expanded from its source material (it was after all just a short story), tweaking the plot mostly by adding more depth and character development to the protagonist, his fiancée and his struggling photography career. It still suffers from the same admonishing horror clichés that we all know and love and despise -- unarmed curious people walking into places they absolutely should not be walking into without a bazooka, peering around corners slowly to see if the axe murderer is watching you (he always is), and so on. The film succeeds due to striking a nice balance between the irritating-but-necessary horror tropes required to drive a film with an inherently ludicrous plot forward (man murdering people on the subway night after night and butchering them like cattle) and the genuine skin-crawling horror of watching a man do exactly this thing.
Did we mention it was violent? The film takes exquisite, almost orgiastic pleasure in drawing out the most heinous of murders -- teeth flying, eyeballs detaching, arms and heads and all manner of viscera go hurtling through the air, often in slow motion. It takes one hell of a horror film to turn my stomach, seasoned veteran than I am, and it shames me to admit that The Midnight Meat Train actually had me recoiling from the screen, holding my hands up in front of my eyes, screaming "OH GOD NO DON'T DO THAT!" Shameful, but so very delightful! It's nice to see a horror film not afraid of the hard "R" rating. As for the casting of Vinnie Jones, it is oddly cathartic. He does in this movie everything you always thought he would do in every other film ever: crack skulls, literally, with great, bloody gusto. It's hard to complain about this. He can cram more menace into a silent glance than most actors could do with a tank.
For fans of director Ryuhei Kitamura, to see his first foray into Hollywood filmmaking end in delayed release dates and microscopic theatrical screenings is heartbreaking. There is an undeniable stylish twang to Kitamura's work, a certain je ne sais quoi that makes his hyperkinetic, violent directorial style feel fresh and daring. He is the rare director where every single one of his film projects achieves that masterful ratio of style over substance in a satisfying way, like carb overloading at dinner. It might not be nutritionally balanced, but it sure makes you feel good in the belly. The slow building of tension, the ridiculous amounts of blood that pour through the subway cars like miniature sets of The Shining, all of it spells cult classic for horror fans.
It's hard to understand exactly what goes through the mind of a studio when making decisions on which films to promote and which to cripple; how a studio could say, invest in a boring and uninspired remake of My Bloody Valentine, yet fail to promote a new property that is scarier, bloodier, more enjoyable, and more skillfully directed in every measurable way like this. It boggles the mind.
The Midnight Meat Train arrives on DVD in the form of an unrated director's cut, which adds back in about two minutes of gore footage truncated from the film's theatrical cut -- and happy we are to have them back. Presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation, Kitamura composes the film in icy tones, silvers, and blues. It is a sharp presentation, about as good as standard definition transfers get these days, with some minor compression artifacts detectable and a slight grain present throughout, but razor sharp in detail. Black levels are acceptable, alternating between impressively solid and tinted by silvers and grays, no doubt a stylized choice. Much of the film is composed in subway cars under flickering fluorescent lights, so some funny things happen in terms of picture quality, but hey, all part of the drama.
We get both a surround Dolby 5.1 and a stereo presentation, throbbing with bass and otherworldly howls and screams. The rear channels pick up on the ambient noise of the subway travel, screams and howls of murder victims, and other environmental details. Bass response is nice and robust, not overpowering but constantly present in a low rumble of menace. Dialogue is clear and crisp. The stereo presentation is nice, plenty lively between its two channels, spreading out as much sonic carnage as possible, but thin compared to the full 5.1 presentation.
In terms of extras, we get director Ryuhei Kitamura and writer/producer Clive Barker chatting about the challenges of making the film -- there's plenty of bitterness here from both men as they try and walk the fine line between politeness and telling the MPAA and Lionsgate to take a flying leap. Kitamura reveals himself to be both a fan of Barker and the original source material, and it shows in his adaptation, which many have observed may be the most faithful translation of a Clive Barker story into film yet. A 15-minute featurette, "Clive Barker: The Man behind the Myth," sits down with the author discussing his original story and its transition into film. "Mahogany's Tale," a 5-minute feature discusses with cast and crew about the silent killer and his development by way of Vinnie Jones. "Anatomy of a Murder Scene" is a 10-minute gorefest, essentially recapping all of the brutal slaughtering sequences and how they get made from conception to direction. Add some theatrical trailers and previous to round out the disc.
The more you think about The Midnight Meat Train in terms of its plot, the less sense it makes. This is normal. It is, after all, a horror film based on a short story from the 1980s by Clive Barker, whose stories (let's be honest) often don't make a lot of sense. The notion that any of these activities could be going on in the bowels of a city starts off as ominous, then peculiar, and by the third act, completely insane. The ending is pretty wild -- be sure and swallow your disbelief suspension pills.
A gruesome horror film through and through, The Midnight Meat Train will please both fans of Clive Barker and horror junkies looking for their fix of the red stuff. Whatever weak moments its script has are pleasantly compensated by healthy doses of directorial style, impressive and stylish cinematography, and buckets upon buckets of blood. This is of the most faithful and successful adaptations of Clive Barker yet to reach the silver screen.
This Judge fully intends to replace his gavel with a meat mallet. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Unrated