What a surprise. I didn’t expect much from The Midnight Meat Train, and I got what easily ranks as one of the better horror movies of the last few years. That might have something to do with the involvement of a) Clive Barker as the author of the story it was based on, and b) Ryuhei Kitamura as director. Apparently he wasn’t the first choice for the chair, but you could have fooled me. He understands the real impact of a horror movie is after you leave the theater, not just while you’re watching it.
Train is about Leon (Bradley Cooper), a photographer with an attraction to the seedy underbelly of the big city. One night he wards off a gang of thugs who’re about to attack a young woman in a subway. She thanks him, steps on her train — then turns up on the 11 o’clock news as a missing person. Leon goes back over his pictures and realizes he might have also taken pictures of her killer: a hulking giant of a man named Mahogany (Vinnie Jones). He’s a serial killer, cornering late-night riders on this particular train and beating them to death with a giant hammer reminiscent of a meat tenderizer.
Leon's quest for Mahogany, the midnight train killer, becomes
downright noirish in the way it exposes his own capacity for evil.
Leon stalks Mahogany — no better word for it, really — and discovers he has a day job as a worker in a meat-packing plant. No prizes for guessing where the bodies go. He also begins to discover things about himself: that shoving his nose into the dirt, as it were, is making him into a different person. This upsets his girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb), but she’s even more terrified when he starts coming home with bruises and wounds from having followed Mahogany a little too closely. And then he discovers the reasons for Mahogany’s killing sprees, about which the less said the better.
The movie starts off good and actually gets smarter and more ambitious as it goes along. It’s inspired at least as much by noir thrillers as conventional stalk-and-slash horror flicks: Leon is a lot more curious about the dark side of life than he likes to admit, and that proves to be his undoing. There’s also a theme, more underlined than rubbed in our faces, about the whole epistemology of seeing and being seen, about going from voyeur to participant to instigator. Leon makes that journey in more ways than one: by the end of the movie he’s gone gunning for Mahogany (with his own knives, no less) only to discover he might simply be drafted to fill the other man’s shoes when he’s gone.
The movie thrills you while you're watching it, but also gives
you plenty to be uncomfortable about long after it's over.
A good horror film is hard to make, and Kitamura has brought high-grade artisanry to every movie he’s made. Here, he indulges in a few of his crazy signature camera movies, but to heighten the horror rather than substitute for it. The climax is a virtuoso fight inside the subway train with dead bodies hanging from the poles as per a slaughterhouse, and at several points the camera circles around the train while it’s in motion. An obviously CGI effect, but it’s done strikingly enough that it doesn’t matter, and the amount of gore unleashed in this sequence (and throughout the film) is frankly jolting. It also only occurs to us later that the fancy camera move is in fact thematic: it’s so we can peer in from the outside. Sneaky.