Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, Vinnie Jones, Roger Bart, Tony Curran, Barbara Eve Harris, Peter Jacobson, Stephanie Mace, Ted Raimi, Nora, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, Dan Callahan, Don Smith, Earl Carroll
Written by: Jeff Buhler, based on a story by Clive Barker
Directed by: Ryuhei Kitamura
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of strong bloody gruesome violence, grisly images involving nudity, sexual content and language
Running Time: 100
Date: 07/19/2008

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Right Track

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 2008 Lionsgate cooked up a bizarre scheme for The Midnight Meat Train. It goes without saying that they did not screen it for the press, but then at the last second they announced plans to release the film only in "dollar" theaters across the country -- and not that many of them. When Friday, August 1st rolled around I dutifully started checking around to see where it was playing so I could review it, and to my astonishment I discovered that I would have to drive some seven hours just to get to the nearest showing (14 hours, round-trip). I didn't go. As a reviewer, I was miffed, but as a fan, I was secretly pleased. In one fell swoop, Lionsgate had taken an ordinary horror film and turned it into a legend. Most fans nationwide were probably in my same boat as me, and the ones that did get to see it had to suffer through the wretched conditions (and odors) of the nation's "dollar houses." This was the closest any film had come to "grindhouse" status in many years.

Happily, the film -- which was released on DVD earlier this month -- stands up to the legend. It's excessively and imaginatively gory, presented in a straightforward manner, but with the slightest hint of a wink. Bradley Cooper stars as Leon, a New York photographer who works as a freelancer for newspapers but dreams of taking "art" shots for galleries. After some encouragement by his girlfriend/fiancée Maya (Leslie Bibb) he meets gallery owner Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields). Susan tells him that his work needs something... more. So Leon descends into the subway system to get some more intense shots. He photographs a mugging and then stumbles on to the trail of a grim butcher (Vinnie Jones) who murders people on the late-night train and whisks their bodies away to who knows where...

In any ordinary film, Leon would become obsessed with the butcher (dubbed "Mahogany" for fans) and perhaps eventually foil his evil scheme. But this is Clive Barker we're talking about and things don't go quite that smoothly. Barker's original story appeared in Volume 1 of his great "Books of Blood" collection, all the way back in 1984. The film, produced by Barker and directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus, Azumi), keeps most of the story's ideas but adds the photography angle and the girlfriend, neither of which detract. Whereas many horror films waste time with artificially tacked-on character histories, The Midnight Meat Train actually explores its characters and their personalities. It's no Chekhov or Noel Coward, but the characters at least rise above fake cardboard cutouts; the drama occurs in spite of -- not because of -- the horror at the center of the movie. Some fans have apparently complained of fake CG effects, but it seems to me that Kitamura has added some of these on purpose to achieve a specific end, such as a victim watching his own demise in the reflection in a pool of his own blood. Indeed, the entire time I was watching, I kept imagining being with an audience in a grindhouse or in a drive-in; the movie has that kind of vibe. (Ted Raimi appears for a couple of minutes for fans of these kinds of films.) It deliberately tries to provoke, but in a way that takes the audience in as an accomplice, not as a target.

Lionsgate has released a very good DVD worthy of its terrific film. It, of course, presents the "director's cut," which is about two minutes longer than the theatrical release. It comes in a gorgeous widescreen transfer, with optional subtitles. Barker and Kitamura provide a commentary track. Featurettes include "Clive Barker: The Man Behind the Myth," "Anatomy of a Murder Scene" and "Mahogany's Tale." There are also trailers.

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