First things first: I've never really been a fan of Clive Barker, not his books, not his movies. Hellraiser was quite interesting during its time, Nightbreed was much more palatable as a piece of fantasy/horror. Books Of Blood is B-grade horror fiction.
But what Ryuhei Kitamura has done with The Midnight Meat Train is something quite exceptional in the face of so much forgettable horror flicks these days. The movie definitely doesn't deserve its horrible straight-to-video and limited theatrical release fate in North America. Really, what is the studio thinking?!
Now that I've seen Meat Train, the whole issue has become extra baffling. There is absolutely nothing about the movie to suggest that it's so crap as to earn a ticket to video hell. First of all, Kitamura has delivered a movie that's dark, unsettling, bloody, violent, shocking, funny, engaging, and all of it has a pertinent point to make, too. This is no B-grade, pointless gorefest to satisfy only hardcore extreme cinema fans. This is what happens when a violent horror flick actually ponders on what it is doing and why, while it is doing it.
Yes, it's as self-reflexive as it gets here.
Simply, this is a story about folks who think they know better but the truth is given to them right in their faces, and the terror they experience is something they thought they could just switch off when they turn off the TV news. Or when we walk out of the cinema.
Leon (Bradley Cooper) is a photographer who ekes out a living by taking photos of dead people at crime and accident scenes. But he has an artistic streak and big dreams. When he is introduced to connoisseur and gallery owner Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), he shows her his work, but she feels it needs something more. So he goes out in search of that "something," something harsher, grittier, more real. He finds it at the subway station, where a woman is about to be mugged. This scene very simply sets up the whole moral thread of the film. Should Leon stop shooting photos and help the woman? Should he let things run their course, because that's really what he is after, the city in its natural guise?
When Leon meets Mahogany (Vinnie Jones), a well-dressed man carrying a black bag coming out of the subway, he is immediately drawn to the man. He doesn't know why, but he soon discovers that Mahogany may have something to do with a woman reported missing a few days ago. But the audience already knows from the beginning that Mahogany rides the late-night train through the cavernous subway, killing people and hanging them up on meat hooks. Why he does that and who he really is, is something we and Leon discover gradually.
The violence is shocking, bloody, and designed to unnerve the audience rather than have them gawking in amazement. One scene involving a decapitation (can't give away anything more) is innovative but also seriously self-reflexive because it literally puts the viewer in the victim's position. Literally. Are we any better than Leon for watching the bodily torture and mayhem? Could we all be armchair moralists at a safe distance?
The big reveal at the end may seem a little too "easy" and incongruous, but by then, what happens to Leon and the people around him is very fitting and quite powerful in its meaning. The experience and moral lesson for Leon comes full circle, is complete, then folds in on itself.
I don't believe I've seen a slasher/horror film this effective and interesting mainly because of the simplicity of its ideas and the simplicity of its execution. The film plays out with a strong awareness of its own starkly painful existence, draped in dreary colours, and drags its audience along on its bloody trail, letting them know all the time that they can't get up off the blood-slicked floor, that the more they try, the more they'll soak themselves and fall further.
What has happened to Meat Train theatrically in North America is truly unfair. The film deserves to be seen by more people, and seen in the cinema where the point of it all would be made much more clearly.
(There is one tiny mistake in the story, regarding a bunch of train schedules that Leon's girlfriend steals from Mahogany, but that couldn't possibly be the reason for relegating this film to the video store, could it?)