Starring: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Vinnie Jones, Brooke Shields
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Release Date: August 1, 2008
Running Time: 111 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Lionsgate Films
Describing the instability in my affection for horror movies goes beyond pointing out the obvious. I like the classics and I went through my “slasher phase” in the eighties, but I have no time for the new school idea of horror movies. I have the Saw’s and Hostel’s of the world to thank for that. And don’t even get me started on Asian remakes. But this love of ours for the moving picture is cyclical enough that, like anything else, if you wait it out, something will come along to restore our faith. The Midnight Meat Train is that movie.
Based on a short story by Clive Barker (I haven’t read it), The Midnight Meat Train has a pretty simple premise. Leon Kauffman (Bradley Cooper) is a photographer struggling to hit it big. His work focuses mainly on inhabitants of the city in their element at night. When Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), the head of a prominent art gallery challenges him to dig deeper and find the darker side of his subjects, he does exactly that. On a shoot one night he stops a woman from being attacked by a group of men but ends up with some extraordinary pictures from the ordeal. The paper the next morning tells a different story. The next night he sees a man he thinks may have been involved and begins following him. It turns out, that man known only as Mahogany (a perfectly used Vinnie Jones), is a serial killer who literally butchers late night passengers on the subway. What starts out as a chance meeting turns into an obsession for Leon as he continues to try and prove his own conspiracy theory to his wife Maya (Leslie Bibbs) and to a certain degree, himself.
Vinnie Jones may be the perfect villain for this movie but the real star performance is director Ryuhei Kitamura, the critically acclaimed Japanese director making his American debut. Do not allow yourself the disservice of dismissing the movie as a vanity project full of style and short on substance. The story may be pretty straightforward but the direction is anything but. Kitamura proves that what makes great Asian horror so great is the exact ingredient missing from most American submissions: mood and tension. The dimly lit, almost nightmarish cinematography would be enough to surpass the majority of horror movie wannabes in and of itself, but the camera work adds much depth to the movie. The CG is abundant but done in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself. During certain sequences the camera acts as a voyeur, working just ahead of the action enough that you want to actually lean over in hopes of seeing everything before it all catches up to itself.
When it’s all said and done, The Midnight Meat Train is hardly perfect. The title is obvious, either brilliantly or embarrassingly, I’m still not sure which. There were a few elements that were either better explained in the original story (I’m told most of them are) or not at all, and the ending is just this side of bat-shit crazy – but it all worked on the level that you would expect from a good horror movie. It is dark and bleak and gory when it needs to be without being over the top. The good news is The Midnight Meat Train is the cream of this year’s horror movie crop. The bad news is that hardly anyone will get to see it, at least in theatres.
The long and short is that The Midnight Meat Train was given the green light by the former head of Lionsgate. You remember, that studio that came into prominence and financial success with the Saw and Hostel franchises? It seems that they want to run with the big dogs so they brought in new management and scrapped all the pending projects so they can become the kind of studio that puts out schmaltzy drivel for the masses. In other words, crap that nobody likes that inexplicably makes loads of cash. The Midnight Meat Train was deemed too dark and bleak to live up to their new model of quality control so the wide release was scrapped in lieu of a 100 theatre release in the secondary market to make way for a forthcoming DVD release. The shame in that, beyond biting the hand that fed them, is that that just because they didn’t know how to market it doesn’t make it a bad movie or one that wouldn’t make money. I guess my message to Lionsgate is that horror fans are a loyal bunch and they will seek out movies like this – they crave them. Hell, they’ll see almost everything that is released by virtue of diminished supply alone regardless of how stupid it looks or ends up being as a finished product.
But I guess you already knew that, didn’t you?
And there’s the rub.
* * * out of * * * *