Last train to horror!
Clive Barker, one of the most original and influential authors in modern fantasy and horror fiction, took the world by surprise in 1984 with the publishing of the first volume of a collection of short stories titled “Books of Blood” (five more volumes would be published between 1984 and 1985). In this his first published work, Barker displayed his great imagination and talent, as well as his very personal style of dark fantasy. Hailed by Stephen King as “the future of horror”, Barker soon showed interest in film and began to write screenplays and adaptations of his previous works for the big screen.
Eventually, Barker himself would take over the director’s seat and make several films, the most important of those being the enormously influential 1987 masterpiece of supernatural horror, ““. In the year of 2008, almost 24 years after its publishing, one of the stories of the first volume of “Books of Blood” makes the jump to the big screen: “The Midnight Meat Train”, film that marks the debut in America of one of Japan’s most popular fantasy directors, Ryûhei Kitamura.
“The Midnight Meat Train” is the story of Leon (Bradley Cooper), a photographer whose work has as main theme the vicissitudes of life on the city streets. Leon gets an interview with famous photographer Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), who tells him that his work is shallow and needs to get deeper. Following her advice, Leon decides to get more daring photographs, to the point he saves a young woman (Nora) from being assaulted by a gang in a subway station. To his surprise, the woman he saved turns to be model Erika Sakaki, whom is reported as missing in the following days, as she never returned home that day. Intrigued by this, Leon decides to investigate what happened to the model after he saved her. Investigating in the subway, Leon finds a mysterious man who carries a suitcase and never speaks (Vinnie Jones), and begins to suspect that the strange man is the killer. Leon begins to follow the man, named Mahogany, but what he’ll discover will be far beyond the grittiness his work was needing, as he’ll take a ride on the Midnight Meat Train.
Adapted to the screen by Jeff Buhler, “The Midnight Meat Train” remains relatively faithful to Barker’s idea, as it’s about a common man whose curiosity takes him to uncover the darker side of the city in the figure of Mahogany and the bloody events that take place in the subway at night. Focusing on Leon, the screenplay adds the interesting concept of obsession as Leon begins to dedicate his time to follow the mysterious stranger convinced that he is the serial killer. Slowly, this obsession begins to deteriorate his life, including his work and his relationships with his friends and specially, with his girlfriend Maya (played by Leslie Bibb). This, coupled with the whole idea of having a mysterious serial killer working secretly on the subway makes quite an interesting concept, but unfortunately the screenplay fails to develop this into a good story as the plot ends up being unnecessarily ambiguous and too convoluted for its own good, leaving several plot holes and sometimes even lacking coherence (specially by the final act). The pace is also affected by the careless development of the script.
After finding success in the horror and fantasy genres with , and , Japanese filmmaker Ryûhei Kitamura enters the American industry with “The Midnight Meat Train” and, while he could have found a much better screenplay to work with, it’s still pretty good what he achieves with what he had to work. Thanks to a remarkable work of cinematography by Jonathan Sela, Kitamura gives the film a polished, sleek visual look that gives the film a powerful, cold atmosphere very much in tone with the methodical killings of the butcher Mahogany. Also, there’s a great care in delimiting the different atmospheres of the film: the warmer tone of the exterior world with the colder world of the subway. Leon’s descent into darkness is seen by Kitamura‘s eye as a gruesome ride to hell in a urban nightmare filled with brutal violence. While highly energetic and filled with action, Kitamura also shows a good hand at handling the mystery and suspense of the story, creating thrilling set pieces filled with his trademark style.
The acting in “The Midnight Meat Train” is for the most part effective, with Vinnie Jones making a really remarkable performance as the film’s silent villain. As Mahogany, Jones showcases his talent in a role that requires more physical expression than words. Taking advantage of his imposing figure, Vinnie Jones creates a haunting bogeyman whom is eerily disturbing in the methodical care he takes in every action. All in all a very memorable performance. As the film’s protagonist, Bradley Cooper is overall a nice addition to the cast, giving Leon a realistic touch as an everyman and making easy to relate to him. As his character gets obsessive about the butcher, Cooper showcases his talent without getting too hammy or annoying. Leslie Bibb plays Leon’s girlfriend, and it’s really a surprise how Bibb turns what essentially is a stereotype into a more realistic character. After Jones, she is the film’s highlight in my personal opinion. Roger Bart makes a nice performance as Leon’s best friend Jurgis and Brooke Shields appears in a brief cameo, but her work is nothing really amazing.
As written above, “The Midnight Meat Train” is a stylish violent tale of horror that has a lot of punch and impact on the visual side and shows that Kitamura didn’t lose his trademark style in the trip to America. Unfortunately, the screenplay isn’t really anything out of this world, and in fact it could be said that it doesn’t live up to the expectations of Barker‘s short story. Sadly, the convoluted pace writer Buhler gives to its tale is erratic, and the whole development of the story is a tad problematic. It’s curious that while it would be expected that a feature length film could expand a short story, the source manages to offer a better constructed storyline that leaves less lose ties. Perhaps Buhler focused more on giving Leon a believable back-story than on following Barker’s conclusion to “The Midnight Meat Train”, but in the end it feels as if Buhler had failed to find a proper way to logically conclude his tale. This, together with the poor character development (which fortunately talented performers like Bibb and Jones overcame), results in severe blows to the film.
I guess that in the end, “The Midnight Meat Train” ends up being a proof of how a talented director can still make a fine movie out of a flawed screenplay, as despite its troubled storyline, “The Midnight Meat Train” is quite a fun ride to take. Violent and brutal, the film suits perfectly Kitamura‘s energetic style, and hopefully next time the inventive Japanese director will find a much better storyline to take to the big screen. In conclusion, “The Midnight Meat Train” may not exactly be a fine adaptation of Clive Barker‘s work, but still it is an interesting mainstream horror film that’s better than most of its kind. Although sadly, that may say more about modern mainstream horror than about the qualities of “The Midnight Meat Train”.
Midnight Meat Train Double-sided poster
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