2008, US, Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
Colour, Running Time: 103 minutes
Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Lionsgate; Video: 1080p 24fps 2.39:1, Audio: DTS HD
It goes without saying that Clive Barker made a bit of a splash on the horror scene back in the eighties, initially with his rather visionary Books of Blood (famously endorsed at the time by Stephen King) and then with the directorial debut that was Hellraiser (discounting the insane arthouse shorts Salome and The Forbidden). Then after the comparatively small dents in humanity that Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions made it seemed that his presence in the genre film world diminished somewhat, other than the continued association he’s had with the Hellraiser brand through its many sequels. Actually he has acted as producer on a few low-end projects but otherwise the arrival of The Midnight Meat Train became quite noteworthy due to a number of favourable reviews attracted by it (though I acknowledge some are less kind). Based on one of the stories in Books of Blood the tale concerns Leon, a talented photographer who has his shots of the seedier side of city life declined by some snobby know-it-all woman in the business. However, during the course of the rejection one of her comments entices him to look deeper into the decadent city that forms the basis of the majority of his material in order to find something altogether more alerting. The otherwise stable Leon decides to head off into the night armed with a camera and his innate eye for an interesting shot, seeking something that will force people to take note. Stumbling across a mugging in the tube station he manages to make the assailants leave their victim alone, after he has grabbed some ‘artistic’ images of the crime in progression, but later finds that the woman being attacked has turned up dead, or more specifically, brutally slaughtered. Initially suspecting the muggers he takes his photos to the police where he’s treated more like the criminal himself for simply taking these shots of the woman, who turns out to be a semi-famous model. Effectively fobbed off he discovers that there’s a foreboding man who tends to hang around the tube trains and who looks likely to be the real perpetrator, so Leon decides to follow him. Eventually Leon realises that what he’s getting involved in is far more horrific than he might at first have imagined, and thus his descent from the stability of his everyday existence has begun.
First of all I found myself really getting into this after just around ten minutes - I think Leon is played nicely by Bradley Cooper, coming across as likeable and someone who we can identify with reasonably successfully. The fact that he’s a photographer attempting to make it in a difficult world induces some sympathy and once he begins his nocturnal adventures we’re pretty much with him. It’s also a bonus that the world outside his apartment is realistically grim, or grimly realistic - a city weighed down by its own human slime. The film boasts a strong visual style courtesy of director Kitamura (genre fans may know of him from slick zombie-action flick Versus a few years back) and cinematographer Jonathan Sela (The Omen remake, for want of a more desirable genre example), most shots demonstrating efficient skills in the framing department. I also think the locations are well selected/designed - these largely revolve around Leon’s apartment, the café where his girlfriend works, the police offices, a cold looking tube station, and of course the train itself. Interspersing all this is some very contemporary extreme violence, something that most modern genre films can’t seem to do without. It is, however, very well executed and polished - almost enjoyable to watch perversely - though one scene in particular I had to turn away from (hey, I‘m getting on a bit, okay?). We get the ‘extreme’ version in the UK, and extreme it is! Famously taking on the tragic lead antagonist is football nutter Vinnie Jones, a factor which doesn’t necessarily attract me: having a celebrity face pulls you out of the fantasy as far as I’m concerned, although Vinnie’s virtually silent intensity is quite appropriate and he adopts some nice characteristics (e.g. the manner in which he almost primly holds on to his veterinarian bag) to flesh out the psychotic but focused man. He’s an imposing figure but I do think that the film-makers take this a step too far as the film reaches its final act, turning him into an almost Terminator-type unstoppable machine. This is one of the movie’s few real flaws though it fortunately doesn’t tarnish overall enjoyment a great deal. Without wishing to give any details away, the story does progress into mythological areas by the time of its conclusion (i.e. it’s not simply about a killer on a train) and this development is welcome, even if some may find elements of it hard to digest. It’s almost like a collision between eighties sensibilities and the aggressive cinematic tactics of something made more recently, and I think the ideas are constructed somewhat higher than what could have merely been categorised as ‘slasher’ otherwise. At a time when it’s difficult to please fans whose emotions are made of stone it seems that Midnight Meat Train gets things right, enough so to make its one centimetre or so of space on my shelf quite valid.
Sliding the Blu-ray Disc into my player with some trepidation thanks to reading a small number of complaints on the internet about the graininess of the HD image I was pleasantly pulled into appreciating the film on a higher level. I understand that the film was shot on Super 35 and this factor tends to bring with it an inherent level of grain that has simply been captured by the two million or so pixels of the Blu-ray picture. Basically the people complaining about this do not comprehend what ‘film’ is. It’s easy to perceive a higher level of detail here than on any Standard Definition release and it grants the world delineated by the story a sharp realism. The grain makes this world look and feel dirty. It’s a pity people are so uneducated when it comes to the technologies that are used to create film and transfer them to the screens in our homes (to this day I go into people’s living rooms to find that they’ve set their DVD/widescreen TV up incorrectly and the proportions of the image are completely wrong - to the apparent ignorance of the household inhabitants!). All of this makes the job of Blu-ray more difficult than it should be, but - to those who understand - Midnight Meat Train is presented very well by Lionsgate here and I wouldn’t watch it any other way. Stellar audio also supports this in DTS HD Master Audio format, with 7.1 channels of immersive sound. Aside from a commentary and various featurette, one extra in particular fascinated me: a 15 minute look at Clive Barker and what he gets up to. Initially I was a bit surprised at how fu*ked up Clive’s voice is - his accent is even weirder than it was back in the eighties and there’s a strange croaky resonance about it. After some comments on the story on which the film is based Clive takes us on a tour of his studio, a place where he has been relentlessly painting for the last ten years or so. I found his artwork quite incredible to look at, and his attitude inspirational. The sheer quantity of paintings and the vastness of bottomless imagination on display is quite awesome and it seems that he has found the perfect way to express the contents of his unusual brain. Overall this Blu-ray Disc is a satisfying package of a film that is a suitably good time.