Crimson pools mirror a mess of mangled, mutilated corpses that swing from hooks embedded in the roof of a passenger train. The driver chortles and the assassin smacks his rapacious lips as the insatiable appetite of the roving slaughterhouse screams its fury through the impeding darkness of the underground tunnel. Clive Barker wrote the story and the story became a film; The Midnight Meat Train (2008) – directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, scripted by Jeff Buhler and produced by Tom Rosenberg. Don’t let the B-grade bluntness of the film’s title deter your eyes from circumspection; Kitamura’s filmic translation of Barker’s sickening story is a sophisticated spectacle of cinematographic scintillation, style and symmetry.
The film’s premise: a bloody butcher massacres unsuspecting commuters, turning the midnight train into a meat wagon of cadaverous carnage. The puzzle: the same bloody butcher has been slaying travellers for 100 years and the police appear to cover his tracks.
Leon (Bradley Cooper), a photographer waiting for his big break, lives with his waitress girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) in New York City. Through a contact Leon meets Art Gallery owner Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields) who criticises his work, asking him to delve deeper into the psyche of the city landscape and its denizens. Affected by Hoff’s critique, Leon goes out on risky late night shoots in a bid to capture the illusive essence of his city subject. As he delves within the recesses of his mind to unearth the courage required to take the risk that will ensure the photo, a psychological terror lurches itself into being with each passing moment. In one hectic heartbeat, the photographer’s quest for artistic expression takes him from casual observer to obsessed stalker. Leon’s photographic journey conspires him into contact with Mahogany; late night traveller and mass murderer on the midnight meat train. Leon’s suspicions lead him on a deadly detour of cat and mouse; the stalker becomes the stalked and Leon is confronted with his destiny on a hellish ride with murderous Mahogany for company.
Vinnie Jones plays Mahogany with gripping gravitas; he is like Jason Vorhees minus the mask, Leatherface void of chainsaw. Jones massacres his way through the film with menacing manoeuvrability. He speaks not a syllable until the very end but manages to horrify his audience with a brutal bloodthirst that is birthed into being by the unashamed decimation of his fellow man. Jones’ gargantuan presence emanates an air of mystery that is both attractive and repellent. He slits and slashes with intent and purpose. Kitamura renders guts and gore with artistic elegance and symbolic sass. Every red splash is placed with precise perfection and the stylised aura of the spilled blood reflects the tragedy of life lost. Light and shadow heightens tension and colour contrast agitates terror.
The horror provoked by Mahogany’s fierce physicality contrasts with the horror of Leon’s emotional and intellectual descent into darkness (both literal and metaphoric) – a darkness to which Leon’s fate seems inevitably fused. He dreams prophetically of his own suspension in the train of terror and is later tattooed with a crude mark of destiny. The protagonist’s inner turmoil is expertly lived by Bradley Cooper who renders his character with great depth and empathetic understanding. The psychological intensity of the ‘back and forth’ between Mahogany and Leon is terrifying. With symbolic death as the backdrop, the two characters have a memorable face off (more like Leon hiding from Mahogany’s calculated slashing) in a meat factory amidst the unperturbed aura of slaughtered cattle; a scene that exists in poignant contrast to the grotesque extravaganza of carnal evisceration that occurs betwixt the pendulating human carcasses suspended in the meat train, at a later stage in the film.
The sly sense of dread affronted by the contrasting elements of psychological warfare and brute force finally culminates in a climactic punchline that is sadly underwhelming. The midnight meat train turns out to be a monster sushi bar that operates in the dead of night for government-potected creatures living underneath the train lines. The ‘rabid monsters/conspiracy’ plotline smacks incongruous within the film’s context. The introduction of fantasy seems to undermine the psychological tension that Kitamura has taken care to tease into being with fastidious finesse. Here’s the deal: it’s not the mish-mash of narratives (realism and surrealism) that makes the ending disappointing, it’s that expectations are met rather than defied. Monsters are supposed to eat people but people aren’t supposed to kill and consume one another. So the whole ‘meat eating monster’ thing is expectedly primal and in some ways acceptable. But Vinnie Jones slicing and dicing passengers on a subway train is beautifully barbaric and totally unacceptable – and so the two narratives conflict. Rather than defying comprehension, the punchline renders the plot utterly comprehensible, and thus disappointing.The film’s surreal narrative is not, however, completely fallacious. The mystique permeating the enigmatic train driver and the mythology enveloped in Mahogany and the midnight meat train is alluring, and complements the psychology of the narrative. And in spite of the film’s illogical finale, the end to The Midnight Meat Train is an action packed blood fest that blatantly defies any breath of relief that may form on the lips of a hyper-tense audience.
Incongruences in narrative philosophy don’t detract from the film’s sheer excellence. The Midnight Meat Train is driven by the momentum of Creative Energy and fuelled by the mechanism of horror. In true Barker style, The Midnight Meat Train is no mere slasher flick; in a brave assimilation of the real and the surreal, horror is afforded the opportunity to operate on a plethora of plains that render viewers forcibly aghast and agape. Logic is thus rendered redundant, in true horror style.