All I want to know is what did writer-producer Clive Barker and/or director Ryuhei Kitamura do or say to someone at Lion’s Gate to get their $15 million film “Midnight Meat Train” dumped into second-run cinemas on its opening week? Did they kidnap an executive’s family and set everyone on fire in front of him? Did they force him to watch “Captivity” and “BloodRayne” on a 48-hour loop? They must have done something pretty wicked, because based on the high quality of “Midnight Meat Train,” their film didn’t deserve this kind of treatment.
Based on a short story by Barker, the film centers on a New York-based photographer, Leon Kauffman (Bradley Cooper), who wants more from his career. Because he hasn’t done anything other than bemoan his situation, his girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) takes matters into her own hands, getting him an “audience” with a snooty art gallery owner, Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), who tells Leon that his work misses the mark. He needs to capture the right moment, and the only way he can do this is to “keep shooting.” Frustrated but inspired, Leon begins staying out late into the night. During one shooting session, he spies a trio of hoodlums and follows them into the subway. On the stairs, they begin harassing a model Erika Sakaki (Nora) and holding a knife to her neck.
Bravely or stupidly, depending on your perspective, Leon confronts the gang leader, and keeps shooting him while he ascends the steps. Eventually, the gang disperses, and the model thanks Leon before getting on the subway. Feeling exhilarated, Leon returns home and develops the photos, which impress (scare) his girlfriend. He gets a similar reaction from Hoff, who tells him that if he gets her two more photos like these, she will include his work in an exhibition. His good news is tempered by the fact that the woman he “saved” is now missing. Could it have been the gang members who circled back around the station? Or was it the silent, well dressed man (Vinnie Jones) who works as a butcher during the day?
Jeff Buhler’s screenplay starts out as a very engaging “on the hunt for the serial killer” mystery – Koreans have become very good at these – but by the end veers into classic WTF Clive Barker territory. The ending is as bleak as it is bizarre, and you will either like or hate it. Just in case you’re wondering if this one is for sissies, the film has a healthy dose of goretastic kill sequences, with the killer using a meat hook, a slaughterhouse hammer and knives on his victims. For example, in one scene, the killer smashes a guy (played by Ted Raimi, Sam’s brother) in the head, and his eyeball comes flying, almost in 3-D, at the screen. His wife/girlfriend then slips on his eye and falls into a veritable pool of blood. Let’s just say, her head doesn’t remain attached for very long.
“Midnight Meat Train” is gory – if you have a weak stomach, stay away – but it’s also poetic. The director and his German cinematographer Johannes Kobilke frame every image beautifully and creatively. If I hadn’t been so horrified, I might have admired the carnage even more. Kitamura also exhibits an intelligence rarely seen in horror directors. He juxtaposes images of the corpses with cow carcasses, and the hand hoops on the train with meat hooks. The effect is to make you realize that, in the end, we are all just “meat.” Furthermore, he makes some interesting commentary on “seeing” and “watching;” and our culpability as viewers as well as Leon’s culpability in the horror in which he finds himself.
The acting in “Midnight Meat Train” matches the skills of the filmmaker. Cooper, who comes from TV land, is an effective lead and draws you into the story. Bibb, who was in “Talladega Nights,” is charming. I’m never keen on seeing a love interest in horror, but she doesn’t make herself objectionable. What can you say about the colossus that is Vinnie Jones? I think he says one word during the entire 90 minutes, but he doesn’t need to speak. He has those penetrating eyes and oozes a sense that he’s going to crack your ass if you get to close. I love him. Shields is unusually bitchy as the art gallery owner, and Roger Bart is great as the friend, Jurgis. I keep watching him, thinking that I had seen him before and then it hit me (no pun intended) – he was in “The Producers.” What a different role this proves to be.
As I said, “Midnight Meat Train” was dumped during its opening week in second-run cinemas, known by the general population as dollar theaters. I wouldn’t have even known about the film’s release had I not read several comments on imdb.com. No one in my town advertised the fact that the film was opening in a shithouse dollar theater. It isn’t as if Barker or Kitamura are no names. Hello, the “Hellraiser” franchise anyone? And as for Kitamura, he’s a cult legend, having helmed the undead gangster killfest known as “Versus,” which he’s supposed to remake for American audiences; “Azumi,” “Aragami,” and “Battlefield Baseball.” After this brush with Hollywood bullshit, he will undoubtedly go back to Japan and never again step foot on these shores.
“Midnight Meat Train” ranks as one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s brutal, inventive, clever and well-filmed. It’s also very disturbing and dark. My two favorite words when it comes to cinema. What made it worse for me was that the theater in which I saw it was within walking distance of a slaughterhouse. I shit you not. So every time someone got hammered and hung up on a meat hook, I looked around to make sure someone wasn’t coming from the back of the theater to recreate the scene. Horrible. If you aren’t a vegetarian before seeing the film, you might very well come away one.
Just an FYI, if the film still exists in your area – it made about $34,000 on 102 screens, which isn’t bad, but it’s still considered a “flop” – buy a bunch of tickets. Even if you don’t use them. Horror fans are calling this their own subversive “contribution” to horror. If it’s still in town, I plan to see it again before Lion’s gate consigns all copies to flames. Bastards!
Ryuhei Kitamura (director) / Jeff Buhler (screenplay), Clive Barker (short story)
CAST: Bradley Cooper … Leon Kauffman
Leslie Bibb … Maya
Brooke Shields … Susan Hoff
Vinnie Jones … Mahogany
Roger Bart … Jurgis
Barbara Eve Harris … Detective Lynn Hadley
Peter Jacobson … Otto