Unless you live in Europe or have a premium cable package, it’s unlikely you’ve seen one of the best horror films of the year. Which is nothing short of scandalous considerous what a fantastic job the filmmakers have done bringing one of Clive Barker’s better short stories to life. The end result of their efforts isn’t just an extremely scary film, it’s nothing short of crazysexycruel.
Leon Kauffman is a struggling photographer, trying to fulfill his dream of being an artist who captures the true face of the city he lives in on film. He seems to have finally gotten his big break when his girlfriend arranges a meeting with a prominent gallery owner, Susan Hoffs. Instead of recognizing his talent, she dismisses his work and advises him to go back to the streets and bring her back edgier images. Leon goes out into the night armed with his camera, tragically unaware that his life is about to descend into Hell. He encounters a mysterious man known as Mahoganey, dressed in a bland suit and carrying an ominous looking black bag. Intrigued by the man’s strange behaviour, he follows him around the city trying to find out more about him. Leon soon learns the truth, but he never expected it to be so horrific.
The man arrives in the subway, then patiently waits hours until the late train. He then boards a car, and literally butchers anyone unfortunate enough to be inside. With only Leon knowing the truth and his sanity rapidly eroding, can he stop the remorseless butcher? Failing that, can Leon’s girlfriend save him from descending into a life of bloody darkness or will the unthinkable occur and he become Mahoganey’s replacement?
Writer Jeff Buhler’s script alters some aspects of Barker’s original short story, but also great expands on it an breathes new life into the tale by adding new characters and situations. Probably the biggest stroke of genius is the alteration of Leon’s character from an office worker to a photographer. Not only does it provide a more plausable reason for the character to be out late, it also makes his downward spiral all the more pronounced. Leon goes from being a tofu eating artist to a meat craving obsessive, all while looking increasingly haggard and emotionally exhausted. The only flaw in the script comes near the third act, when the story threatens to get bogged down in the conspiracy angle before luckily righting itself. It would have been fantastic to have Clive Barker at the helm of this story, but since that wasn’t an option the studio did an uncharacteristicly brilliant thing–they gave the reins to Ryhei Kitamura. He gives the film a swift pace and an oppresively eerie feel, this is a film where the sun never shines and soon all hope is lost. In keeping with the spirit of Barker’s story, he certainly doesn’t skimp on the violence. Mahoganey dispatches his victim with graphic and bloody ferocity; by the end of the film a viewer will have witnessed enough murders to qualify for entry into the Witness Protection Program.
In the lead role of Leon Kauffman, Bradley Cooper shines brighter than a supernova. In a truly impressive turn, he makes us believe his character can descend from an artist to obsessive to killer. As his girlfriend Maya, Leslie Bibb is good showing her character become more and more dismayed and perplexed at the behaviour of her man. Another true standout is Vinnie Jones as Mahoganey, who is given the task of creating a character with only one line of dialogue near the film’s finale. He succeeds marvelously, conveying menace, a sense of perverted purpose, and even a slight tough of pathos just through his body language. As the train’s driver and Mahoganey’s implied superior, Tony Curran gives an all to brief turn; he delivers lines about the horror unfolding with emotionless deadpan and you can’t help wishing his role might have been expanded. The film’s best cameo is by UFC fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, as a Guardian Angel who proves a bit too much for Mahoganey to handle.
In a surprising bit of casting, Brooke Shields appears as predatory editor Susan Hoff. While good in the limited time she appears, she doesn’t make enough of an impression and is easily forgotten among all the blood and gore. Ted Raimi is rather forgettable in his role of Randle Cooper; its tempting to write to Sam Raimi to make “Spiderman 4” or “Evil Dead 4” quickly, at least to employ his brother and let a more charasmatic actor take roles like this one. On another technical note, the cinematography by Jonathan Sela is practically perfect, giving the underground subway a sense of hopeless claustrophobia and the city a feeling of dread where something horrible lurks around every corner.
Why Lionsgate failed to release this film theatrically is as much a mystery as it is a crime. Despite some minor flaws, its a terrific horror film that is adrenaline inducing scary. Whenever “The Midnight Meat Train” becomes available, buy a ticket; there’s no return ticket but you won’t regret the ride.