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The Midnight Meat Train Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 15, 2009

    The Midnight Meat Train Review

    Receiving its unrated rail card, The Midnight Meat Train roars onto the Blu-ray tracks and stops for nothing on its way to pulverising viewer sensibilities with its extreme violence and commuter-baiting intensity. Brought to the screen by Anime-director Ryûhei Kitamura - his American debut, actually - Clive Barker's original short story, from the first of his celebrated Books Of Blood, will hopefully find the audience it deserves after poor distribution and promotion by the studio ensured lacklustre box office in both the UK and the US. Already hailed as one of the best Barker adaptations - which, let's be honest - isn't saying much, Meat Train offers thunderously vigorous and grisly entertainment. It may not be all that scary, exactly, but it definitely puts you in a fair few uncomfortable situations and forces you to endure some sickening scenes of undiluted horror that, thankfully, reveal this to be a faithful vision that doesn't take any prisoners.

    With the original source story influenced by a nasty reign of real-life terror on the New York subway while Barker was there a long time ago (although he tells a somewhat different, and far less interesting genesis-story in his commentary), the film version tells of the murderous exploits of looming, bullet-bonced, chrome-mallet-wielding maniac, Mahogany (a blisteringly malevolent Vinnie Jones), and the socio-realist photographer, Leon (Bradley Cooper) who stumbles onto his antics and tries to uncover the horrific motives behind them, unearthing, in the process, something far more sinister than he could ever have imagined, something that not only threatens his own sanity and his life, but that of his girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb), as well.

    “Step away from the meat.”

    Train-bound terrors aren't new, of course. Gary Sherman's quite unique Death Line (aka Raw Meat) struck commuters with trepidation of pick-axe-hefting cannibals back in 1972. The same year saw Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and, ahem, Telly Savalas battling an ancient alien/yeti/demon in Horror Express. Italy got nasty with Aldo Lado's Night Train Murders in 1975. And, of course, that pesky American Werewolf liked nothing more than to munch on officious and severely unamused accountants on London Underground's escalators in 1981. But perhaps Meat Train has more in common with the, actually, rather naff Brit-chiller Creep, from 2004, with its ghastly blood-smeared windows and carriages turned into mobile abattoirs. Ryûhei's style is hip and modern, though, and his visual flourishes diverse and continually arresting. He directs with a raw visceral approach to the carnage, of course, but even the less-savage sequences have a momentum and a verve that is galvanising. Shots of Leon pursuing Mahogany through the streets, or squaring-off against a trio of hooded would-be rapists have a heightened sense of energy even though nothing particularly physical, other than snarling and leering, actually happens. The environment, as lensed by Max Payne's DOP Jonathan Sela, is wonderfully removed from the commonplace, the desaturation process subliminally stripping away the odorous fabric of the mundane, making these streets and subways almost something from another, more futuristic dimension. The in-organic gleams coldly. The organic, itself, looks wan and sick. Even the relatively calm interiors of apartments have a sheen, or a twilight glow to them that keeps them looking just past their sell-by date, though still eminently captivating. But stylistic intent can often come at the expense of character or plot, and whilst Meat Train is hardly Dickensian in its depth and texture, it still manages to convey mystery and presence in even the slightest of its component parts. The cocksure Guardian Angel, the oriental model, the trio of socialites and even the chocolate-selling kids hawking their wares on the train all have something about them that is just that little bit different. The lead rapist, however, is incredibly mesmerising, with the sheer arrogance of his innate hostility to probably everything and everyone around him is one of the most chilling observations in the entire film. The art gallery into which Leon is determined to get his raw photographic depictions of the throbbing, yet cancerous heart of the city, is bedecked with grotesque paintings - actually from the baroque and disturbing hand of Clive Barker, himself. The police station that Leon goes to with evidence of the numerous missing people from the trains has a stale, unconcerned atmosphere, almost as though, like Brigadoon, it is a phantom entity, only appearing from time to time.

    But, as I say, the style, may cloak the visual narrative, but not everything in Meat Train is smoke and mirrors, CG and fake blood. Leon's increased obsession for tracking down Mahogany and getting to the bottom of all those weird disappearances turns the tables of the thriller mode upside down. With almost Hitchcockian aplomb he begins to assume traits and nuances of the very thing he is pursuing, his mind somehow becoming attuned to the killer's wavelength. Horrific dreams permeate his world and a frightening sense of destiny appears to be hauling him ever-onwards to a confrontation the ramifications of which he cannot possibly comprehend. Although primarily an eye-poppingly violent thriller, there is, however, an element of fantasy that is lifted wholesale from Barker's short story that doesn't sit quite right with the tale being told. It works well enough in literary form, but somehow loses its sense of scale and grim grandeur when placed in a movie narrative, which is undoubtedly a shame and one of the reasons that audiences who did get to see this left theatres with some niggling dissatisfaction. Yet, for a lot of Barker-fans, this is not a major detraction in what is, otherwise, an immensely rewarding gore-fest. The film has a kind of darker, more demented - and certainly far nastier - Twilight Zone sort of appeal and, with this in mind, the really rather daft conclusion is far easier to digest. Barker's brand of the fantastique is, here, clearly paying homage to H. P. Lovecraft's paranoid “other realm” philosophies and, as some people have said, if the ending seems tacked-on, we should, at least, be thankful that it stuck to the same one as in the original story and didn't opt for a more conventional and crowd-pleasing denouement.

    “They never find the bodies, because he takes them here ...”

    “He butchers them?”

    TV's Bradley Cooper has a look of pinch-faced Saving Private Ryan star, Barry Pepper, and his performance is actually quite a lot better than this type of role normally calls for. His transformation from plodding snapper to die-hard Sherlock Holmes is rapid but understandable. He needs something to propel him - and that something has to be dark and disturbing. Photographing the city's seedier, grungier aspects has only been scratching the surface of his easily corruptible nature. He, himself, is already drawn to the dark side even before Mahogany's butchery fires his imagination. Detective Hadley (Barbara Eve Harris) enquires why he kept on photographing the would-be victim of the rapist-gang when he thrusts their mugshots at her, even after she had seemingly escaped from them ... and he cannot find an answer. His personality change is striking. All of a sudden, Basic Instinct-style, he demands rougher sex and starts to eat meat after years of vegetarianism. His attitude towards his relationship with Maya begins to coarsen and, even though it is a genre cliché, the threat of its disintegration is acutely felt in scenes of potential kitchen-sink melodramatics that the two actors manage to make credible and sensitive. Ryûhei, at least, takes the time to inject some pathos into such interludes in-between the slaughter, giving us a reason to give a damn when the obligatory jeopardy takes place in the staggering vicious final act.

    Leslie Bibb is terrific as the determined and courageous Maya. Drop-dead gorgeous she may be, but she is also made of stern stuff and will clearly go to any length to keep her man. But it is in the more personal and reality-based sections when she reveals her true colours. There is a great scene when she confronts Leon about his grim obsession when, amid shaky-cam gyrations and domestic soap-opera overlapping dialogue, the pain of their breakdown is wrought exquisitely on her face. It has to be said that Cooper does well with this scene, too. A last-ditch attempt at seduction can't shake the horrific images that he has recently witnessed from his mind and the painful limbo into which he is tumbling is all-too vividly rendered.

    “Yeah ... life's like a box of chocolates, huh?”

    Mahogany may not become one of the genre's celebrated bogeymen, it is unlikely that you will find an action figure of him in your favourite movie-store, but he is a powerful and intimidating apparition who makes up in sheer, brute-force class what he lacks in one-liners. Just Jones' shark-like head turning to face the camera through the windows of a train's connecting door is enough to elicit nightmares. The actor's unmistakable and unapologetic thug's face is marvellously counter-balanced by the business suit and the decorum with which he neatly sits before actually commencing his grisly work. Considering that he doesn't say more than a couple of words throughout the entire film - and even those he does utter are barely comprehensible - he does a sterling job of putting meat on Mahogany's bones. The plot sees to it that there is much more to this monster than is immediately apparent, and Jones certainly does his fair share of imbuing his hulking assassin with macabre charisma and a sense of bitter-sweet duty. It is surprising how much intimidation he can muster merely by staring directly at the camera and that perma-rage visage is put to extremely good use on, and off, the Meat Train. A nerve-jangling game of cat-and-mouse in the meat packing factory where he works is made all the more adrenal by the notion that his brawny and unforgiving form may be lurking just behind that even uglier slab of meat hanging on the hook just there. A clever little visual reference is the leather case in which he carries the tools of his trade - a nod to the oft-seen Gladstone medical bag that Jack The Ripper is usually seen hefting around foggy old London Town - his natty fifties-suit, short back 'n' sides and starched white shirt contradicting with his swift savagery. Even a photo that Leon has snapped of him whilst chopping meat - legally, for once - at the factory and hung in that snot-nosed gallery has a dangerously hypnotic power, Jones' eyes burning out of the frame with menacing temptation.

    “I'm very disappointed in you, Mahogany ... clean this mess up.”

    Always great to see Scottie ginger bit-parter Tony (Gladiator/Underworld 2) Curran getting in on the action, even if his attempts to wrestle his Hibernian accent into something resembling American makes him sound like Liam Neeson with tooth-ache. And it is certainly a delicious treat to find Brooke Shields, once a teen-angel and now a MILF-supreme, essaying high-brow (as well as bushy-brow, eh?) art snob, Susan Hoff, the mover and shaker that Leon initially thinks will set him on the course to success. Roger Bart's business agent, Jurgis, may be a bit of a hanger-on, ostensibly used to get Leon from plot point A to plot point B, but he ends up literally hanging-on for dear life once his new-found penchant for detective work lands him in very big trouble. The score from Johannes Kobilke and Robb Williamson is dark and ominous, synths provide prowling ambience and electric guitar and bass heavy flurries aid the whip-lash scenes of horror and action, making the already elaborate sound design sizzle with energy.

    Of course, the major selling-point for Meat Train is Barker's predilection for flinging the old claret around, and gore-hounds will not be disappointed with this extended Director's Cut. Ultra-violence and CG gore explode across the screen in livid welters that may look something akin to how giddily nasty you would imagine a Tom And Jerry cartoon would be if George Romero ever got the chance to make one. Faces are appallingly mashed-in, eyes and teeth removed in lingering close-up. Carriages full of nude, strung-up carcasses make the ones seen in Predator 2 seem like craft-class in the Balamory nursery. Ryûhei stages a wild massacre in which the always-up-for-it Ted Raimi gets his eyeballs bashed out of his skull in delirious slo-mo, and then tops it with one of the most inventive decapitations you will have seen in a long, long time. In another audacious shot, an upended victim even gets to see his own reflection in the pool of blood beneath his gashed throat. But the coup-de-grace is the sinew-snapping mano-et-mano smack-down that dominates the penultimate chapter of the film - which is just out of this world in terms of graphic duelling with slaughter-house tools and virtuoso cinematography. This, folks, is a sequence that seeks to rival Spielberg's famed “camera-in-and-around-the-car” shot from War Of The Worlds - Ryûhei's barnstorming variation seeing us hurled inside, outside and all around a charnal-house carriage of death and mutilation not once, but twice in an unbroken, fluid movement. It is true that the CG gore is patently obvious - we even have Matrix-inspired “blood-time” in a couple of gross-out moments that lattice the screen with bright life-juice - and that many people find this element quite disappointing, but I feel that it fits the surreal, otherworldliness of the frightening domain that Mahogany has carved for himself down in the tunnels. Ryûhei's incredible silver-chrome aesthetic needs an element that is bright and garish to contrast with it, and the rich spatters and thick gobbets of grue that burst and fly around these speeding tin-can sets bring a gloriously comic-book excess to the proceedings.

    Hardcore and still visually poetic, The Midnight Meat Train, produced and clearly over-seen throughout by Barker is wonderfully bravura stuff. It pulls no punches and retains a deadly serious attitude to the material. For once, when the average-Joe protagonist confronts the bad guy and becomes something of an unexpected action-hero, it feels right and downright necessary. The film always looks amazing and, finally, Barker finds a director who understands how to treat his concepts and, for the most part, nails them down with appropriately beautiful ferocity. Misjudged destination aside, The Midnight Meat Train is well worth catching ... if you've got the bottle, that is.

    Highly recommended.