Horror novelist Clive Barker’s work has never enjoyed the same success in its translation to the big screen as the work of his contemporary Stephen King. Lord of Illusions was truthfully a bit of a mess, and while it has gained a cult following, Nightbreed was a box office miss. To date, Hellraiser remains the best big screen adaptation of Barker’s work.
It’s been 10 years since Barker’s short story, The Midnight Meat Train, joined Hellraiser and Nightbreed with the big screen treatment. Distributed by Lionsgate, The Midnight Meat Train disappointed at the box office in spite of the relatively positive critical response. Now after 10 years I’m going to suggest that The Midnight Meat Train deserves another look from horror fans.
Leon (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling photographer in New York City looking for a big break. At a meeting with influential gallery owner Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields) Leon is encouraged to dig deeper into the city to capture its true essence. During his late night quests for that ‘perfect shot’, Leon begins taking increasing risks. Soon he notices brooding butcher, Mahogany (Vinnie Jones), whom he suspects may be a serial killer preying on subway passengers. As Leon becomes increasingly obsessed with Mahogany and his secrets, he finds himself dragged into an underworld from which he may never escape.
A Wildly Creative and Different Horror Story
Clive Barker’s literary work is infused with a rare creativity and detail that isn’t very common. His works are rich with dark mythology that sucks readers in. It’s this unconventional and detailed approach to storytelling that may explain the difficulties translating Barker’s work to the big screen. The Midnight Meat Train, however, benefits from Barker’s twisting mystery and dark yet wholly unique mythology.
Investing in The Midnight Meat Train’s story is a refreshing, if not entirely rewarding, experience. It may feel like other films, but its story delivers something new for horror fans. A big part of the joy in watching The Midnight Meat Train is trying to decipher the mystery as the story shifts from its serial killer roots to the realm of the supernatural. Fans of the original short story on which the film is based may take issue with the film’s final act. Jeff Buhler’s screenplay does indeed shortchange Barker’s ending, but it doesn’t diminish the freshness of the horror narrative spun in The Midnight Meat Train.
Casting Hits and Misses
First, Bradley Cooper is a fantastic actor. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, Cooper is miscast as Leon. None of this is about the performance itself. Rather this is a case of fit with Cooper just not looking the part of a struggling photographer and artist. It’s also hard to buy that Cooper’s Leon is really descending into darkness – Cooper can only sell it so much. Leslie Bibb’s ‘Maya’, Leon’s girlfriend, is wasted as the stereotypical, yes, girlfriend. The Midnight Meat Train’s screenplay just doesn’t give Bibb much with which to work, sticking her with a one-dimensional character.
If Cooper is somewhat miscast, Vinnie Jones was a stroke of casting genius.
If Cooper is somewhat miscast, Vinnie Jones was a stroke of casting genius. As the silent and imposing Mahogany, Jones makes a perfect ‘angel of death’ bringing his charisma and screen presence to the role. Jones menaces whenever he is on screen, bringing just the right amount of quiet intensity. Some viewers may complain that Jones’ character is fully revealed too soon. This is a pretty trivial quibble as Mahogany is never forced into the narrative. His presence, and its chilling impact, is never diminished over the movie.
Kitamura Brings the ‘Meat’ to Midnight Meat Train
Director Ryuhei Kitamura has an eye for filming onscreen carnage. Look no further than his most recent directorial effort, the wild and fun Downrange. There’s no shortage of gory mayhem on display in The Midnight Meat Treat. All of the blood gushing and disturbing imagery is filmed with an irreverent sense of transgressive fun. Kitamura brings a lot polish and energy to Barker’s literary world. The final climax packs in a lot of thrills and suspense.
All of the blood gushing and disturbing imagery is filmed with an irreverent sense of transgressive fun.
If there’s any complaint with Kitamura’s visual style, it’s his over-reliance on CGI-effects. Scenes of eyeballs flying out of their sockets with a trail of blood have a cartoonish energy that seems out of place for the film’s tone. The Midnight Train is largely defined by a serious sense of dread, so it feels out of place when Kitamura injects some of these ‘Looney Tunes’ moments. It doesn’t help that none of these scenes required CGI-effects; practical effects would have worked for any of these scenes.
Worthy of Cult Classic Status
Hellraiser remains the best cinematic adaptation of Clive Barker’s work. But The Midnight Meat Train is a fun ride for horror fans. The film uses the tired ‘serial killer’ narrative as a launching pad for a far more engrossing mythology. Vinnie Jones glares and Kitamura knows how to make the violence and gore pop on screen. If there’s an under-appreciated horror film that deserves cult status, The Midnight Meat Train is a contender.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B