Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 4: "The Midnight Meat Train" by David Pretty

Greetings, Cenobites and Cenobelles!

The twisted psyche of Clive Barker is responsible for foisting some of the most disturbing literary and cinematic images onto the consciousness of modern horror film fans. The Midnight Meat Train is no exception: it's bloody, bleak, nasty, repellent and coldly stylish.

A part of me just wishes that the film had quit while it was ahead and hadn't been derailed by such an infinitely moronic finale.

But before we get to that, here's the film's intense theatrical trailer:

So, Bradley Cooper plays Leon, an aspiring photographer who's desperate for a career breakthrough.  After a chance meeting with Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), a local luminary in the New Your arts scene, Leon begins to feel pressured to capture the "real" (read: seamy) underbelly of the city.  After using his camera to thwart an attempted assault, the same girl he rescues ends up dead later that evening.  After reviewing the photos he took the previous night, Leon becomes convinced that he's captured the girl's real killer in some of his stills.

Leon becomes obsessed with tracking down and investigating this mysterious subway denizen: a tall, imposing, impeccably dressed professional butcher named Mahogany (Vinnie Jones).  Eventually Leon's persistence pays off and he actually manages to photograph the murderer's grim handiwork.  Unfortunately he's spotted by the killer, subdued and then wakes up the next day with a bizarre symbol carved into his chest.

Concerned for her boyfriend's safety and convinced that he's right about the murders, Maya (Leslie Bibb) decides to break into Mahogany's apartment (!) to try and recover Leon's camera.  Naturally, this doesn't go over so well.  After her friend is kidnapped, Maya goes to the police with what little evidence she has and their non-committal response seems to hint at a deeper conspiracy.  This sets things up for a final confrontation on the train between Mahogany and Leon, who now seems to have been taken on many aspects of the butcher's dark persona.

This movie starts s-o-o-o-o good.  Then it gets s-o-o-o-o bad.  S-o-o-o-o-o quick.

Which really is a bloody shame, since director Ryuhei Kitamura has assembled a visually stunning flick.  It might seem odd to describe a horror movie as beautiful, but this truly qualifies.  With its desaturated colors, grimy sets, creative lighting, inventive camera angles, time-lapse photography and arresting (not to mention sometimes repellent) use of closeups, Midnight Meat Train is shot almost like an art film.  Which I suppose makes sense, considering the thematic relevance that photography has to the story.  Indeed, the film seems to be challenging the long-held perception that a camera can somehow insulate and protect a photographer from their sometimes-ghoulish subject matter.

As great as it is for a film called Midnight Meat Train to have some deeper meaning, when everything is said and done, it still has to deliver the gruesome goods.  And, let me tell you folks, Kitamura isn't shy about coming at us full force.  In quick succession he bludgeons us with a "victim cam", an innovative shot I've come to refer to as "Decap-O-Vision", unflinching hammer-falls to the face and a spate of flying, wayward eyeballs.  At one point  the camera lingers sickeningly on Mahogany's handiwork as he "harvests"...things from the face of his victim.  Even this old gore hound was duly repulsed.

The performances are great.  Although its hard to separate Bradley Cooper from his role as Phil in The Hangover, he capably fulfills the script's arc for the character, going from determined to frantic to vacant and then unhinged.  Leslie Bibb is attractive and sympathetic as Maya.  Despite the fact that her character is asked to make some pretty loopy judgment calls, her willingness to do just about anything to save the love of her life is well-sold.

But a large part of film's success has to go to Vinnie Jones, the hulking villain of the piece who I'd have to describe as a brick shit-house with a crew cut.  Fortunately he's not just a Frankenstinian ogre.  His expressive eyes and face are put to good use and he's able to express a whole host of emotions, most of them patently repugnant.

So, after such bountiful praise, how can I possibly criticize this film you ask?  Simply put, the second half borders on ludicrous.  At the mid-way point I was on the verge of awarding this flick at least four stars and then a veritable shit-storm of stupidity began to rain down.

I've seen enough horror movies to know that often characters have to do stupid things in order to further the plot, but dear zombie Jesus, there are some unforgivably idiotic things that happen in the later half of this film.  As soon as Maya breaks into Mahogany's apartment the film goes from being an efficient and intelligent thriller to an asshole practical joker who keeps trying to straighten the "SUCKER" signs on our backs.  The fact that Maya then willingly decides to waltz right into the lead villain's lair completely alone is just the heights of stupidity.

But that's not the ending's worst offense.  Clive Barker may be responsible for the cool deeper meanings infused in this story, but he's also the guilty of peddling the dumbest possible reason behind all the killings.  Like his contemporary Stephen King, sometimes I get the sense that Barker is a great concept guy but just pulls endings out of his ass like an afterthought. 

So, after establishing this gritty, creepy, urban twist on the slasher/serial killer genre and teasing us with the very terrestrial conspiracy that's afoot, the revelation at the end of Midnight Meat Train comes across as spectacularly lame.  Almost as lame, in fact, as the ending to Steven King's otherwise incredible novel IT.   Seriously, why don't these great writers figure out an intelligent ending first and then work their way backwards?  After all, audiences tend to formulate their final opinions based on the last thing they witnessed.

But I can't completely jettison this film as a failure merely because of a few bad ideas.  For the most part it's a slickly lensed, well-performed and genuinely horrifying thriller.

In fact, if you hop off the Midnight Meat Train just before it makes its final stop and you'll end up having a fun and very scary thrill ride.

        Tilt: up.

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