Take a look at the gentleman in the picture below.
His name is Vinnie Jones. In real life, a soccer player who got suspended for kicking guys in the nuts. In THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, he plays a butcher named Mahogany.
[note: theme tune of movie MAHOGANY, starring Diana Ross, prominently features the line: "Do you know where you're going to?" Definite relevance to this story, but not sure it's deliberate]
Let’s say you see this guy out on the streets of New York at night. You take his picture. He notices, and without saying a word, makes it very clear that he resents the intrusion. You also have good reason to suspect that he may be a mass murderer.
(a) Thank Jesus he didn’t cave your testes in with his boots, and stay far away;
(b) Go to the police with what you have, and let them take care of it;
(c) Buy a gun in case he follows you home;
(d) continue to follow him wherever he goes, surreptitiously taking photos all the while even though he’s already demonstrated an uncanny ability to tell when he’s being followed?
If you’re the movie’s main character, Leon (Bradley Cooper), then OF COURSE you take the stupidest fucking course of action imaginable. What could possibly go wrong when you stalk a gigantic evil butcher?
Now, before we go any further, I have to qualify something:
I LIKED THIS MOVIE. Really, truly, genuinely. But it is not without its flaws, and I’m not going to remain silent on them. Because whether or not I liked it, my goal, as in most reviews, is to try to give you sufficient information to decide whether you’ll like it.
So back to Leon. He’s a photographer who wants to “capture the city” the way it “really is,” which, in typical pompous artist fashion, he claims has never been done before. Offered a meeting with a high-level curator played by Brooke Shields — in what may be the first of many “cougar” roles for her (and let me add I’d gladly play the antelope) — he gets only partially shot down. She finds his work promising but not gritty enough, so one night at 1:10 a.m. he goes out to captures some true street grit.
[side note: is 1:10 a.m. really late enough for that? I mean, all the bars are still open and everyone's still partying. This is New York, right? Plus, this guys a young aspiring artist with a hot girlfriend, and they're already asleep long enough that he actually wakes up at 1:10 a.m.?]
The plot set-up here takes longer than expected, but anyway…Leon sees a hot Asian girl being mugged. He takes pictures of the muggers, then shows them the security cameras. They leave, pissed off. The girl gives him a thank-you kiss, then boards the subway.
Next day, Brooke is loving the mugger pictures, but the Asian girl turns out to be a supermodel who has vanished. Leon gives his photos to the police, who assume him to be a stalkerazzi. He starts to figure that the disappearance might have something to do with the surly butcher, whom he has also photographed at this point.
All of which is a whole lot of set-up to what should be the log-line of the entire movie, which is this — every night, a certain subway station takes the wrong turn into a mysterious tunnel, and anyone still riding the train at that point gets butchered by Vinnie Jones. Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura goes way over the top with the violence in some of these scenes, and also revels in giving us subjective victim POV shots, notably including one particular unfortunate soul whose eyes we see through as she’s being decapitated and afterwards, only gradually realizing that our spinning point-of-view is due to the severed head rolling across the floor.
Kitamura is best known in this country for VERSUS, a movie way-overrated by Asiaphile fanboys for its violent death scenes, despite a paper-thin plot that can be summed up as “people walk through a forest and kill each other. The end.” I don’t think he’s much of a storyteller, and there are moments to this movie that can feel a bit amateurish, like one scene where Leon stares at one of his photos of Vinnie and imagines it looking back it him. Kitamura simply chooses to go closer and closer on the photo to make sure we get the point, when a wide shot actually conveys the information just fine.
That said, he does make an interesting choice that will probably not work for the casual viewer, but is at least something different. As mentioned in my intro, Leon seems incredibly foolish to keep stalking Mahogany even as he learns more about how dangerous the guy is. We get the sense that it’s an obsession or metaphorical addiction, but we don’t know why — Kitamura gives us the character from the outside looking in.
Where this gets interesting is that it forces us to identify with the girlfriend, Maya (Bibb). In most horror movies, she would be the annoyingly dense character who can’t see the horiffic truth and thinks her boyfriend is crazy. In this movie, though, it’s easier to agree with that perspective. It certainly makes her less of a prop, but in doing so makes the main guy less likable, which will not be a huge problem for horror fanatics, but maybe for the casual viewer.
And make no mistake, when it comes to scenes of slaughter, Kitamura is very much in his element. And not a bad match for writer Clive Barker, though the butchering tools involved also recall the gynaecological instruments in David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS. When it comes to the utterly insane ending, there’s a big challenge there in that what was written in the original story is the sort of thing that works better in the imagination than when actually shown, but all told it’s passable, and wins points for being so out of left field.
I don’t remember if the original short story featured Mahogany cutting warts off his own chest and saving them in jars — it feels like a really gratuitous gross-out without payoff (plus they don’t look all that real), but it will make you think twice about your appetite for popcorn, I’d say.
Another thing: If you’re in a secret society — not just something like a Shriner Lodge, but a conspiracy that conducts highly illegal acts — why the hell would you blatantly wear a shared logo on a ring, or a huge-ass necklace? Seriously, Kitamura seems to think it’s a subtle thing, but it ain’t.
Final verdict: An efficient slasher with a surprisingly slow build-up and a decent amount of originality. Plus the best use of Vinnie Jones in any movie — he utters exactly one word, and is utilized as a force of nature, much like Arnold in the first CONAN movie.
Now, we must at least touch on Lionsgate’s bizarre treatment of the movie. They had a panel for it last year at Comic-Con, then this year word came down that — probably due to a regime change at the studio — it was getting the big brush-off. There was apparently a screening at Comic-Con this year, but the studio, who are usually very friendly to me as they know I’m a supporter of their horror stuff, never responded as to whether I could attend or not. Even when I asked what theaters it would open in, the appropriate people never got back to me.
Now, if I ran Lionsgate, I would probably not screen THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN for review. It seems more likely to elicit prudish scorn from mainstream critics than anything.
But I would have given it a decent push. Here’s what happened instead: The only LA area theater playing the movie is in La Mirada. Making this perhaps the first time that I live nearer a given movie than my Angeleno colleagues do. It’s just on the other side of the county line from me.
It’s playing twice a day at a $2 theater, sharing a screen with SON OF RAMBOW. At least when they buried MAY, it played the Beverly Center.
It was a good day out. The same mall has a 24-hour drugstore, which surprised me, as nothing near me is 24-hour except Norm’s diner. I wonder if there’s some sort of OC rule, but honestly, I don’t feel like looking it up. I ain’t no OC news journo no more.
And a Chuck E. Cheese’s. Holy crap, I haven’t been inside one of these since the ’80s. It’s kind of sad. Sort of like a really run-down, low-rent version of what Dave and Buster’s does better, only with giant scary animatronic things that jerk back and forth every so often.
Except…HOLY SHIT THEY HAVE MELLO YELLO! Nowhere in California has Mello Yello, but they do! I had heard rumors but never believed…normally when someone tells me they’ve seen it, it’s some cruel illusion and they actually mean Sun Drop. But this was real. So even though it was two bucks for a soda, it was well worth it.
As for the bargain multiplex, I’m pleased to say the sound and projection were fine. The only problems with it were the sort that are inherent to such places — people theater hop constantly, and as such may come strolling in to the auditorium at any time during the movie. Also, homeless people who want cheap AC buy a ticket, then loudly pop open beers and sinus-snort throughout the thing. And people bring in their lunch. The employees aren’t paid enough to care.
But it’s cheaper than DVD rental. So go see the movie before it inevitably gets pulled on Friday.