Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

I really wanted to make a Forest Gump joke, but a guy
in the film already did, so... uh, how about that local sporting team?

Man, that fucking title. I don't know what they were thinking with that one. I guess it's nice that they trust audiences not to act like a bunch of snickering adolescents, but when I saw the trailer for this film the whole theater burst out laughing. Not me though, I was really looking forward to it. Like Hellraiser and Candyman (which I consider horror classics) it's based on a Clive Barker short story and despite some of his more recent misfires, Clive Barker's name still holds some sway with me. Obviously Lionsgate didn't have much faith in the film, they skipped critical screenings and dumped it on a handful of dollar theaters where it flopped around and died like a cow getting a captive bolt to the forehead. I believe it got a cinematic release in Australia but it lasted only slightly longer than the length of the film, so I only got around to it on DVD.

The film follows the story of a photographer named Leon (Bradley Cooper) who is obsessed with capturing the essence of the urban environment (they never say which city but if it's supposed to be New York it isn't very convincing). After being criticised by a weirdo gallery owner (Brooke Shields!) for his mundane subject matter, he photographs a girl being menaced by some stereotypical gangsters and the next day he reads that she is missing. His investigation of her disappearance leads him to Mahogany (Vinnie Jones, and I never caught his character's name in the film, I had to look it up) a sharply-dressed butcher who he suspects is murdering people on the midnight train and covering it up somehow.

Naturally Leon becomes obsessed with his subject, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) and friend Jurgis (Roger Bart). He starts hanging photos up everywhere, falls off the vegan wagon etc. In desperation he follows Mahogany onto the train, only to witness him slaughtering the passengers and hanging them up like sides of beef. When he tries to bring his story to the police it becomes clear that they will not help and are possibly involved with the killings. As he pushes Maya and Jurgis away they too begin looking into the mysterious killings and soon everything he cares about is in danger. What's gonna happen? Oh my god!

Like many films based on a short story, this one feels stretched a little thin. I can't say I was ever bored, but it does get a little repetitive. Leon stalks Mahogany, his girlfriend screeches at him for getting too involved and then Mahogany kills some random people on the train, and this pattern continues for most of the film. I think they could have spent a little more time on Leon's descent into obsessive madness but at least it doesn't outstay it's welcome. The whole thing has a very dreamlike atmosphere and there isn't much explanation until the very end. It's all wrapped up in an unusual but satisfying ending. It doesn't do anything revolutionary but it's executed well.

I really didn't think that Ryuhei Kitamura would be a good match for this material. Azumi and Versus were brainless fun but they didn't suggest Kitamura could do atmospheric horror. I was worried this film would be plagued with music-video editing but I was surprised at how well he manages to build tension and communicate things visually. Sometimes he gets a little too fancy for his own good (like where the camera rotates around a train carriage in slow motion) but there are some great suspenseful chase sequences and some of the dramatic camera angles and sustained overhead crane shots made me think of Dario Argento. He gives everything a suitably grainy look, bathing the underground scenes in a sickly blue light, but it's not as self-consciously grimy as a Saw film. It looks good.

In terms of gore this film is about as gruesome as you'd expect from a film about guy butchering commuters with a meat tenderiser. There's a wince inducing scene where he prepares the bodies, removing fingernails, eyeballs, hair etc. Sometimes they employ some dodgy CG in aid of a flashy special effect, such as a eyeball flying out a victim's head in slow motion or a guy watching his reflection in a pool of his own blood as he is murdered. Usually I hate CG gore effects in horror films, but somehow it worked for me here. Clive Barker's stories usually take place in surreal, dreamlike settings, so the hyper-stylised violence seemed to fit in.

Performances are pretty solid. Bradley Cooper and Leslie Bibb are both good and I'll let you guess whether Vinnie Jones is any good playing a scary motherfucker who bludgeons people to death and strings them up like a Christmas turkey. On the whole this film is pretty good and the fact that something like The Midnight Meat Train gets shafted while Saw V gets a worldwide release makes me want to take a meat tenderiser to a few people myself. I wouldn't call it a classic, but it's a potent blend of psychological horror, gore and the supernatural.

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