The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #234

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Number of Views: Two
Release Date: 31 October 2008 (UK)
Sub-Genre: Extreme Exploitation
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $15,000,000
Running Time: 103 minutes
Director: Ryûhei Kitamura
Producers: Clive Barker, Gary Lucchesi, Richard Wright, Eric Reid, Tom Rosenberg, Jorge Saralegui
Screenplay: Jeff Buhler
Story: Clive Barker
Special Effects: Matt Kutcher
Visual Effects: Eric D. Christensen, Vincent Cirelli, Michael Collins, Avi Das, Justin Johnson
Cinematography: Jonathan Sela
Score: Johannes Kobilke, Robb Williamson
Editing: Toby Yates
Studios: Lakeshore Entertainment, Lions Gate Films, Midnight Picture Show, GreeneStreet Films
Distributor: Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, Vinnie Jones, Roger Bart, Tony Curran, Barbara Eve Harris, Peter Jacobson, Stephanie Mace, Ted Raimi, Nori Satô, Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, Dan Callahan, Donnie Smith, Earl Carroll, Allen Maldonado, Michael Shawn McCracken, Ryan McDowell, Eddie Vargas, Kelvin O’Bryant, Jayson Sanchez, Brian Taylor

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Suggested Audio Candy:

 Johannes Kobilke & Robb Williamson End Theme

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God I adore a good bit of vivisectionist splatter. Crimson jettisoning from punctured ventricles, windpipes protruding from flapping neck fissures and the odd dissected eyeball. It’s all peas and carrots to Keeper. As you are probably already enlightened it’s not that I possess a wrought iron gut; I am sickened as much as the next man. I simply turn that queasiness to my advantage and push myself beyond it. That is what makes a true horror aficionado, after all, no sense no feeling. I don’t necessarily view horror films for their in-depth characterization as my primary desire is to be made to feel discord and solitude. However, when splatter enters the fray, the sleeves are rolled up, blood-sodden apron donned and red sauce bathed in gleefully.

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Ryûhei Kitamura just so happens to know just how to run a bloodbath. Hardly the most genteel film-maker on the circuit, he’s not the kind of chap who dips his elbow in first to test the water as attested by his outlandish and quite brilliant blood-saturated martial arts vampire flick Versus. He’d rather push you headlong into the suds like an abusive step mother and watch you writhe around while your skin bubbles up. Here, his approach is more deliberate and, dare I say it, subdued although when he lets loose, he really does go to town on a blood-soaked rickshaw.

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Presumably Versus won him a lot of fans stateside and this marks his Hollywood debut. Tackling a short story from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood is never going to be an easy pursuit, especially given that historically so many directors have struggled to bring the master’s words to life. There have been success stories (Hellraiser, Candyman, Lord of Illusions) but they have been sandwiched in between often catastrophic misfires. Rawhead Rex was one such blunderpuss although, despite its numerous failings, it was too much fun to consider an outright failure but there have been many other lulls along the way. The Midnight Meat Train is not one of them.

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It tells the story of struggling freelance photographer Leon (the impossibly handsome Bradley Cooper), a dedicated NYC snapper who is on the verge of hitting the big time. His girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) coerces their friend Jurgis (Roger Bart of Hostel Part II) into introducing Leon to prestigious gallery owner Susan (Brooke Shields) in an attempt to gain him wider recognition for his work. She gives him pearls of wisdom, including encouragement to capture that ‘perfect snapshot’ by letting his photography set him free and doing whatever is necessary to achieve results. It appears dedication is the key and Leon takes the investor’s words a little too much to heart, allowing his voyeuristic juices to flow deep in the subway network at the dead of night.

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Opportunity comes knocking when he witnesses a brutal murder and we are introduced to Mr Mahogany (Vinnie Jones), a snappily dressed mute death dealer with a briefcase full of malignant instruments who loves nothing more than a spot of late night debauchery. Now then, about Vinnie and his meat tenderizer. He is hardly what you would call gourmet chef, more fast food. No heirs, no graces and no reams of dialogue to reveal his frailties, this hones in wisely on his strengths. He is a mean looking son of a bitch and not the individual you wish to share a secluded carriage with in the dead of night. He pounds and kneads his hapless quarry into mortal submission with animalistic glee, while Leon watches on fixated from a somewhat less daunting vantage point.

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Cooper was already on the cusp of super-stardom when this opportunity presented itself. The Hangover, The A-Team and Limitless have helped to bring his work to a much larger audience but it is here, as voyeuristic Leon, that he gives one of his most understated performances. He becomes obsessed, regardless of the fact that bad things are clearly happening aboard this midnight train and, when rebuffed by the police and even accused of stalking, he decides to delve further into the grim underworld which is unraveling before his baby blues, regardless of potential danger. It is his performance which helps to elevate this above other mindless splatter fare as, tempted as we are to look away from the atrocities that play out, we can’t help but become fascinated also.

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The first two acts set up quite brilliantly whereas the final act somewhat squanders the potential to turn The Midnight Meat Train into a bona-fide classic. In Barker’s original fable, the creatures were intelligent, part of an ancient, Lovecraftian race who ruled the lands before humanity even got a sniff of the cheese. They all serve a colossal, throbbing parasitical demigod with flailing tendrils leaching away all life within its grasp. Think Dagon and you’re on the right track. Here however, Kitamura runs himself into a blind alley and the shambling cannibalistic underground dwellers come across as little more than an afterthought. Perhaps, given the fact that Barker’s short story is stretched taut across its 103 minute running time, it just proves too much of an undertaking.

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Despite these inconsistencies, The Midnight Meat Train is a riveting watch. Far more thoughtful in its execution than many will have been expecting, it is at its strongest when we’re leering down Leon’s lens and playing devil’s advocate to his cancerous fascination. Desaturated blue tones contrast beautifully against flowing crimson and Jonathan Sela’s glorious cinematography captures the mood of the sprawling underground network majestically. The mythology may be a tad off-kilter and it may begin to buckle a little under the intense weight of expectation as it moves towards its conclusion but Kitamura gets so much on the money up to that point that he can be instantly forgiven for becoming a little overwhelmed by the source material. In short, this is a train well worth catching.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 5/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: What a grand hunk of mutton this film is, eyes are ejected from their cavities and return tickets are squandered as the late night train becomes a Bermuda Triangle of brutalized yuppies. Where FX is concerned, Kitamara papers over any diminutive cracks in its execution by keeping his splatter fleeting as opposed to lingering too long. If you like bathing in the blood of innocents then grab your loafer as there’s no shortage of cruor to soak in here. Just be warned, this ain’t no place for rubber ducky.

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