Theatrical delay after delay found Lionsgate dumping MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN first run in small town dollar theaters, a marketing move about as lucrative as rainbow insurance. I’m told by Hal Masonberg, who still has a Clive Barker involved film languishing in producer intervention hell, the move was a spiteful one done by the suits at Lionsgate solely to satisfy a 100 theater minimum contractual agreement with Lakeshore entertainment. I came to the company’s defense, saying that Lionsgate’s stagnating shareholder value could not take on the film’s tough sell risk.
The flick fettered into the mire despite the best wishes and endorsements of horror critics across all mediums. Enter FEARnet, the free (with cable subscription in the US) OnDemand service catering exclusively to our demo. They’ve taken MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN under their wing for the month of October, going so far as to offer it sans charge in high definition (tip o’ the hat for that, FEARnet), finally giving you and I the opportunity to see the ill fated film.
Having taken advantage of said opportunity, I reluctantly side again with Lionsgate. MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN is not not just a tough sell, it is a no sell. Sure, given the controversy involved, I believe horror fans would have rallied and given the film decent opening numbers. Had some exec swallowed his ego, they could have made a penny, but that is a whole anachronistic chicken-egg scenario deserving of a separate argument. As far as the film is concerned, though entertaining, I, the target audience, find myself no more nor no less satisfied than I was before ever having met the Ryuhei Kitamura’s take on Clive Barker’s short story. Average Joe wouldn’t have given it the time of day and I think they had the foresight to realize you can’t market on good intentions.
My problem rests with the short story itself, which I find one of the weakest in the BOOKS OF BLOOD. The main character is unlikeable with an inadequately motivated plight and resolution to boot. Jeff Buhler’s script offers no improvement on the imbalanced formula, just 90 minutes of maintenance. Not helping is a miscast Bradley Cooper as the protag photographer wrapped up in the mystery of a serial killer butcher on the subway. There is no incentive to care for his story (which plays out film wise like a video game puzzle requiring the player to collect objects hidden in a house to advance the story) or the illogical conclusion it/he reaches.
Nevertheless, what Barker’s story or Buhler’s script lack in substance, Kitamura makes up for in style. MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN looks great, is paced with consideration and boasts several inspired sequences that rise above the rest. Kitamura, best known to film goers for his Japanese cult hit VERSUS, but perhaps better known to avid gamers as the man who directed the cinematic sequences in the Gamecube remake of METAL GEAR SOLID. He was the right man for the job, not a paint by numbers gun for hire, but a director with personality willing to take risks and fight for sequences that take long behind-the-screens prep work.
I am not a fan of CGI blood, particularly when it is rendered as artificially as it is here, which unfortunately Care Bears a lot of the film’s cherry kills. There is a brilliant first person shot from the upside down POV of a victim dangling from a meat hook that springs to mind. The butcher, played by Vinnie Jones, slits the mans throat, spilling a bloodfall onto the subway’s floor that pools big enough and dark enough to form a mirror, reflecting to the hanged man his own death. In concept that is a terrific shot, but all of the effect is handled on a hard drive in post production, killing the intentions for anyone with even a lazy discerning eye.
Aside from Bradley Cooper and Brooke Shields in a tiny role, everyone else fits their characters. Reading about it I thought the casting of Vinnie Jones as the butcher was a gimmick, but he works. A second won’t pass in which you forget that you’re watching Vinnie Jones playing a butcher, yet he works. Special kudos to Leslie Bibb in her unexpected turn at drama in the role of Cooper’s girlfriend, proving she is more than a pretty face. Her performance is the most believable out of the lot of ‘em.
While I’ve heaped on a lot of negativity, I did enjoy the production. Well, as much as I can enjoy the production of story I’ve always felt was a few drafts away from perfection. However, if you loved the source material, you’ll be far more inclined to jive with the movie’s matching spirit. With the recast of its lead and more refined digital work (or, dare I say it, practical blood effects!), MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN would be one for 2008’s record books. Instead all we’ve got it is an interesting footnote.