Friday, June 26, 2009

“Please, step away from the meat.”

The last horror film for a little while is 2009’s The Midnight Meat Train. Produced by and based on a short story by horror veteran Clive Barker, I did not know that when I viewed the film, taking it as-is. Considering the title, you might be surprised to hear that its not actually a porno.

A young photographer in what I’m certain is L.A. (but IMDB calls the setting New York even though it was filmed in California) is trying to make a name for himself. Told to basically find the moments where the dirty meet the clean, he starts scouring the night looking for interesting scenes when he stumbles upon a large, well-dressed mountain of a man with a medical bag walking around. After a unsettling confrontation with him, the photographer becomes obsessed with the stranger, who he learns is murdering and butchering people on a subway train after 2AM. What follows is more or less a game of cat and mouse.

Leon: Bradley Cooper’s Leon is our protagonist shutterbug. He starts off as a normal artsy type, obsessed with making it as a photographer and possessed of that certain artsy pretentiousness that has him bring tofu to the local greasy spoon for the cook to fry up. As Leon starts to suspect something very wrong is going on with the titular subway train, he starts getting obsessed with learning about the silent killer. Leon goes from reasonably well-adjusted photographer with a good Samaritan streak to a creepy stalker obsessed with figuring out what Mahogany’s deal is. His entire arc is a descent into this darker world that he stumbles upon.

Maya: Leon’s hot, supportive girlfriend that works at the above-mentioned greasy spoon. When he starts going off the deep end about the subway killer, she takes it hard. There’s one scene where, trying to cheer him up, she starts to strip off her top for an impromptu photo shoot (nudge, nudge) but he’s so fixated on the killer that he starts crying as he’s snapping photos, and she runs into her room crying. I guess the centerfold shoot’s always better when the photographer’s crying.

Mahogany: Vinnie Jones is a big, scary man. Mute for the duration except for one line, he delivers a brutal, authoritative, professional killer tempered with a subtle resignation that hints that he is not his own master. Body language and the eyes tell more than words ever could, and I have to admit, Jones steals the show as both the most interesting character and the film’s badass. He butchers people on a subway train, then works in a normal slaughterhouse in the daytime, which makes sense. His two major tools of the trade are a large meat tenderizing mallet and a meat hook (well, and he’s got a big, Crocodile Dundee-sized carving knife too). He also provides us with a Ted Raimi Death Scene. Ted Raimi Death Scenes are ALWAYS good. And for the record, no, I have no idea why he’s called Mahogany.

There’s also a guy named Jockis, but he’s a disposable sidekick and Brooke Shields shows up in a minor role.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
Things get interesting on this front. There’s lots of gore (yeah, who knew with a title like that?), a lot of it really nasty on the subway train with bodies hanging upside down like meat. Some of the effects are clearly CGI, but nothing to take you out of the story. There’s lots of the requisite gore for those of you looking for it.

However, there is something there beyond the gore and beyond the effects. Ryuhei Kitamura, the man behind the camera, knows how to make beautiful, atmospheric shots. I’m not talking about the gore scenes on the train, which have a washed out, florescent-lit quality. I was drawn in by his use of color and framing to tell a visual story in between dialog. He makes stuff like Mahogany riding an escalator up from the subway both beautiful, relevant to character building, and ominous at the same time. There are other scenes too, like a simple shot of the stairway leading down to the subway, that I want to make my desktop background. This is one of the most artistically shot horror films I’ve seen in regards to scenes that have nothing to do with blood.

Oh, and I have to mention the pre-title sequence. It’s really good, as it has a random schlub riding a train trying to get away from something before slipping on blood and catching a glimpse of the gore to come. Then the title hits the screen and in the span of those few minutes, you are treated to Midnight, Meat and Trains.

The plot is very interesting and as I was watching it, I caught a vibe of “a Ray Bradbury short story, only with buckets of blood.” Jeff Buhler adapted Clive Barker’s short story, and the plot remains interesting all the way to the ending. I have to note with some smug arrogance that I was able to call the ending about halfway through. This was the good kind of calling the ending, since the clues are laid out before the audience (particularly in some of the lighting as the story starts heading for its conclusion. Keep an eye on how brows are lit) for them to find. I was really pleased to have called the crux of the ending, since that’s what I would’ve done, albeit with a few modifications.

Dialog-wise, there really wasn’t much that caught my attention. Its not very quotable and I can’t really remember anything that anybody said. I even had to look up the title quote on IMDB. It’s a flaw, and I will subtract arbitrary points away from it, but its nothing to ruin the experience.

Sound The sound was good. Mallets striking skulls, the rumble of the subway train. Can’t remember anything from the soundtrack a few days after watching it.

I honestly did not think I would like a movie titled The Midnight Meat Train as much as I did. Its well shot, features a truly fascinating villain (that you never figure out the full story of) and features a turn of events that dips into crazy town by the end. I like that. I really like that. I like it enough that I can overcome my perpetual apathy at gorefest movies and say I really had a lot of fun with this flick. Your mileage will vary, but if you can get past the gore factor, there’s some really interesting stuff in a movie that isn’t a remake or franchise element. Its not so much scary as disturbing, but its interesting and kind of high concept, so I recommend it for that.

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