Dir: Ryuhei Kitamura. US. 2008. 86 mins.
A stylishly-photographed but woefully thinly-characterised slice of stalking terror, Midnight Meat Train is a grim, bloody genre offering purely for hardcore horror fans. An adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story of the same name, the movie can’t hold up in comparison to The Strangers, a far more skilful evocation of dread from earlier this summer, but it does possess a passably-intriguing blend of artfulness and intensity, courtesy of director Ryuhei Kitamura.
Though it has the fifth instalment in the lucrative Saw franchise coming up soon, distributor Lionsgate seems to be looking to distance itself slightly from the horror game by fulfilling the contractual obligation of a theatrical release for this film, but dumping it in a scattered assortment of discount to mid-range theatres nationwide, including no single major venue within the greater Los Angeles area.
Film adaptations of Barker’s work have never had the same financial zing of fellow horror-meister Stephen King; 1992’s Candyman is the top earner, at just over $25 million, and even Barker’s cult hit Hellraiser topped out at $14.5 million back in 1987. The Midnight Meat Train will be a non-event at the box office, domestically and abroad, before parlaying its status as a martyred curiosity amongst horror fans into an initial rabid reception on DVD, and then slinking off into relative anonymity.
After struggling New York photographer Leon Kauffman (Cooper) gets some attention for a series of provocative pictures, influential but imperious gallery owner Susan Hoff (Shields) urges him to get even grittier, dangling the promise of a show at her downtown art space. Leon heads out into the night, and one evening photographs a woman who is reported missing the next morning.
When Leon returns to the scene, he glimpses serial killer Mahogany (Jones), a mysterious figure who stalks the subway butchering late-night commuters. While Leon’s girlfriend Maya (Bibb) understandably expresses concern about his increasing obsession with Mahogany, a conflicted Leon can’t help but feel oddly enthralled by his newfound proximity to pure evil, and the invigorating effect he believes it’s having on his work.
The English language debut of Japanese filmmaker Kitamura (Versus), Midnight Meat Train finds a way to tweak and enliven standard-issue genre visuals. The film’s cinematography and creative framing mitigates, or at least masks, much of the depravity of the narrative, which is the difference between this and mental rot like last summer’s Captivity, which wasn’t much more than a string of torture sequences.
There’s still a good bit of grim sadism here, but Midnight Meat Train has a certain tonal authenticity. It also holds an additional, substantive mystery card in its narrative deck. Unfortunately, this end twist - no doubt a big part of the novella’s success - comes across as a cheap cop-out on screen. Jeff Buhler’s script leans heavily on the most wildly pantomimed signifiers of obsession (photographs everywhere in Leon’s apartment), and there’s never enough honest character depth to make the wilder notions of the movie’s end game take root.
The performances here are serviceable. Square-jawed ex-footballer Jones - who got his big break in Guy Ritchie’s first films - is suitably imposing, and there’s a bit of welcome, flinty determination in Bibb’s portrayal.
Working with Kitamura, cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who shot the pedestrian 2006 remake of The Omen, finds angles that lure the viewer into watching, even when you might want to glance away - including an unusual but memorable decapitation.
Jeff Buhler, based on the story by Clive Barker