Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, Roger Bart, Vinnie Jones
Well…. damn! I usually like to start off with something a little more coherent than that, but I wanted to demonstrate how much this movie caught me off guard. My most recent screening was some weeks ago, but it’s such a dark, dreary horror film that it took that long just to be able to get me back into the mindset I needed to be in to write about it. When it comes to horror movies, you can usually learn a lot about what you’re going to watch just by reading the name. You just have to be sure you know which “name” it is that requires your attention. With “The Midnight Meat Train,” be not fooled by the film’s title. Instead, keep in mind the name of the author responsible for penning the original source material, he being Clive Barker.
Leon Kaufman (Bradley Cooper) is a New York City amateur photographer, desperate to get his work noticed by anyone of importance. One such opportunity presents itself when he brings his portfolio to Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields). Susan is very particular about the photographers she works with, so it comes as a surprise to Leon when she sees potential in him. However, because his landscape photos aren’t likely to be a big sell, Susan suggests he come back with some nighttime shots of the subway system. When he does, he catches a gang attempting to assault a woman, whom he eventually saves. The next day, however, he discovers she went missing shortly after he watched her get on the subway train. Through some investigating, Leon begins to suspect that a butcher known only as Mahogany (Vinnie Jones) is repsonsible. He is correct.
Just to show how different our protagonist is from the killer, Leon is a vegan. This is especially irksome for the cook at the diner where Leon’s girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) works as a waitress. The cook loathes the idea of having to specially place Leon’s tofu on the grill, thinking that in some way its close proximity to the hamburgers might infect them with its bland nothingness. As Leon’s investigation into Mahogany’s activities grows ever more obsessive, Maya becomes concerned. She tries to take those concerns to the police, and is met with the same suspicion that Leon had been when he tried to share his photos as evidence. The cops are going to be no help at all, it seems.
As the scenes of carnage on board the train unfold, several questions will undoubtedly pop up. Among them: “Surely the train’s conductor must know what’s going on?” “What happens to the bodies once Mahogany’s done with them?” and “Why are the police so uncooperative?” These and other questions can and will be answered. This won’t however prepare you for the film’s ending… unless, of course, you are familiar with Clive Barker’s original short story.
What is my second favorite adaptation of one of Clive Barker’s works (other than “Hellraiser”) is not without some pretty serious flaws. Sadly, this is one of those horror movies that falls prey to the Idiot Syndrome. In order for Leon and Maya to be anywhere near the danger, they must both enter areas which no one in his or her right mind would ever dare to tread, and then act surprised when Mahogany shows up and gives chase. But my least favorite thing about this movie is saved for last. It’s not surprising for a Clive Barker story to have supernatural elements to it. It is shocking, however, when there are virtually no hints dropped until the final fifteen minutes. But that’s not my only gripe.
I can dig horror movies which take you to dark places and then leave you there. Except in the case of slasher films (which this one initially looks like but isn’t), what I don’t love quite so much are horror movies that arrive at an illogical conclusion. Because the film changes the character of Leon from a down-and-out loner to a motivated photographer with a beautiful girlfriend, having his story arc arrive at exactly the same destination feels less fluent than it does arbitrary, even if it does leave us with the movie’s most lasting image.
In spite of the strikes against it, “The Midnight Meat Train,” up until those final fifteen minutes, is one of the best horror films of the 2000’s. It gives us a great villain in the silent killer Mahogany, performed with menacing excellence by Vinnie Jones. In the years since, you’ll find some references to “The Midnight Meat Train” in other films. In “Silver Linings Playbook,” also starring Bradley Cooper, it’s the movie playing at the theater where he and Jennifer Lawrence are standing outside arguing in one key scene. The director, Ryuhei Kitamura, is also responsible for some outstanding Japanese titles, such as “Godzilla: Final Wars” and especially the zombie action film “Versus.” Horror/comedy enthusiasts (and anyone else looking to have a good time) are encouraged to seek out “Versus” as soon as you’re done with this one to lift up your spirits from the dark dimension of horror that “The Midnight Meat Train” drives you toward.