Rated: Unrated (original rating: R)
Film Length: 102 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: English DTS HD-MA 7.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Aug. 1, 2008 (but see below)
Blu-ray Release Date: Feb. 17, 2009
So horror legend Clive Barker co-produces a film based on one of his short stories. It has a
decent budget and features real actors with A-list movie credits and buckets of blood. In a market
that can tolerate five Saw films, twelve Friday the Thirteenths, innumerable Halloweens, the
Night/Dawn/Day/Land/Shaun of the Dead oeuvre (and countless lesser knockoffs), Freddie
Krueger, the Scream franchise and far too many torture porn films, you'd think any reasonable
studio would be happy to spring for a few thousand prints and enough advertising to support a
low-key August or September release, right?
Wrong. Lionsgate couldn't bury this one deep enough. They dropped The Midnight Meat Train
into a hundred theaters for a week on August 1, 2008, just enough to fulfill contractual
obligations. And not real theaters, mind you, but bargain theaters, as far as possible from major
metropolitan centers like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago - anyplace where there was a risk
of finding large numbers of Barker fans who might actually show up to see the film. Rarely has a
studio gone so far out of its way to leave money lying on the table.
At the time, Barker agitated both publicly and privately to get Lionsgate to reconsider, but to no
avail. As if to make amends, Lionsgate has now released the film on Blu-ray, and - as far as I can
tell, with nothing to compare it to - the release appears to be first-rate.
Leon (Bradley Cooper of Alias and The Wedding Crashers) is a photographer looking for his true
artistic vision. The subject that fascinates him is "the city". The locale itself is never identified by
name. Various details suggest New York, but nothing in the film looks like New York, especially
the subway system, where so much of the film takes place. This is "the city" as a generic beast.
(The film itself was shot in Los Angeles.)
Leon lives with his girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb of Iron Man), whom he promises to marry as
soon as he's made enough money from his photography. Meanwhile, Maya supports them by
waitressing at a greasy spoon diner where Leon, a vegetarian, has to beg the cook to fry him tofu.
Leon persuades his friend Jurgis (Roger Bart of The Producers and Desperate Housewives) to
introduce him to a high-powered art dealer named Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields). Susan
challenges Leon to go deeper and show her the "real" city.
It is while prowling the streets late at night in an effort to meet Susan's challenge that Leon
encounters the austere, silent, intimidating man we will come to know as Mahogany (Vinnie
Jones, veteran of several Guy Ritchie films as well as X-Men 3 and Gone in 60 Seconds).
Mahogany works in a meat-packing plant above an abandoned subway station, lives in a hotel
room filled with bizarre tools, and there is just something about him . . .
As Leon's interest in Mahogany deepens into obsession, he begins exhibiting odd behavior (like
eating steak!) and experiencing bizarre dreams. While Leon tails Mahogany, Maya begins
following Leon, eventually dragging along Jurgis. This being a story from the mind of Clive
Barker, the results are catastrophic and bloody but not necessarily in a way that you might expect.
Let's just say that, when someone goes looking for "the real", they may be shocked to discover
that the real has been looking for them.
In other hands, the basic story of The Midnight Meat Train might have served as an episode for
Tales from the Crypt. But Barker has always wanted more from horror than just the gross-out
surprise, followed by a high-pitched snarky laugh, that made Tales from the Crypt an entertaining
but ultimately disposable pastime. Barker wants people to feel something (even if the feeling
isn't pleasant), and he's willing to risk having an audience laugh at him in an effort to have his
characters and their emotions taken seriously. (It's a tricky balancing act, as later installments of
the Hellraiser franchise show; Pinhead, probably Barker's most famous monster, can easily
become ridiculous.) In The Midnight Meat Train, Barker and screenwriter Jeff Buhler take the
time to let the actors build a real relationship between Leon and Maya so that the audience can
become invested in what happens to them. Bradley Cooper and Leslie Bibb are appealing leads,
and they make the most of the material.
Mahogany is also more than just an unstoppable killing machine, although his story is only
gradually revealed (and, personally, I found it more stomach-churning than the copious slaughter,
but your mileage may vary). Vinnie Jones is perfect casting, because he has great physical
presence and can convey menace and other, less expected emotions without saying a word.
Director Ryuhei Kitamura maintains a grim, unsettling atmosphere throughout the film, favoring
a desaturated pallette and a heavily filtered look that makes even the daytime scenes seem
shadowy. He has a nice feel for both the mechanics of suspense (as in a chase through hanging
racks of meat) and for the over-the-top violence that fans expect from anything bearing the name
of Clive Barker. The film on this disc is the unrated director's cut; so nothing has been trimmed
for the sake of a rating. (According to the commentary, the version released in theaters had to be
heavily edited for both sex and violence, especially the latter.)
The film is presented in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Although I have no other experience of the film
for comparison, the color values appear to be appropriate for the blue-tinged, desaturated look of
the city at night, which is the primary world of The Midnight Meat Train. There is highly visible
film grain throughout, and this appears to be the product of deliberate "filtering" - which is to
say, boosted contrast ratios, probably in the digital intermediate stage. I did not detect the kind of
edge enhancement that would result from artificial sharpening. Rather, it appears that the
enhanced contrast was intended to accentuate the noirish appearance of the film, and it
contributes a sense of wear-and-tear to the cityscapes that they otherwise might not have. (This
turns out to be important for reasons you'll have to watch the film to understand.) Again, with the
caveat that I have not seen the film projected, this appears to be an excellent transfer.
(NOTE: Anyone comparing the film to the trailer included on the disc will note that the same
scenes in the trailer have more color and less grain. Similar comparisons in the past have
sometimes led people to conclude that the film transfer was botched. It's important to remember
that trailers are prepared before a film is finished, using footage that has not been finalized - or
"color timed", as they'd say in the days before digital intermediates. If the entire film looked like
the footage in the trailer, it would lose much of its mood and atmosphere. Lacking any evidence
to the contrary, I have to believe that the film transfer represents the intended look.)
The DTS-HD MA 7.1 track is the only audio option, and it's a treat. The scenes in the subway
and in the slaughterhouse could be demo material, except that the subject matter isn't for most
viewers. Dialogue is clear and natural. As I sit here now, I can barely remember the musical
score, which is usually a sign that it's well-integrated. (Sidney Lumet once remarked that Howard
Shore's score for The Silence of the Lambs was one of the best he knew, because he couldn't
remember any of it apart from the movie.)
The video for all special features is in HD.
Commentary by Clive Barker and Ryuhei Kitamura. Barker and Kitamura engage in a lively
conversation that runs the entire length of the film with barely a pause for breath. Even though
Barker co-produced, he was not present for much of the shooting, and he takes the commentary
as an opportunity to "interview" Kitamura about how he set up and achieved many of his shots.
Barker also gives a candid account, from his perspective, of how Lionsgate was originally
enthusiastic on the film, scheduling it for a wide release in May 2008, but then turned negative
and canceled the release date after the film's champion at the executive level, Peter Block, left
the company. To this day, Barker says, he still doesn't know what corporate scores were being
settled at the film's expense.
Barker and Kitamura also discuss changes from the original story (notably the character of Maya,
who was invented for the film) and numerous films that influenced them in one respect or
another. Some of the influences are fairly obvious (The Fly, The Exorcist, Alien), while others are
unexpected (The Hitcher, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Cruising).
Clive Barker: The Man Behind the Myth featurette (14:54). Probably the highlight of the
special features, this is less about the film than about Barker in the later stages of his prolific
career. The bulk of the featurette is a tour of Barker's art studio. Even though he did not begin
painting until age 45, Barker has produced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of canvases, and he
speaks with infectious enthusiasm about what painting means to him and why he enjoys it. He's
even willing to show the camera canvases that he considers to be failures and plans to paint over.
Mahogany's Tale featurette (5:12). A short introduction to the film's villain. Spoiler alert: Do
not watch this until you have seen the film.
Anatomy of a Murder Scene featurette (9:17). A making-of documentary on the complex
choreography behind one specific scene of mayhem. The scene begins simply enough, with three
people, a couple and a friend, riding the subway late at night. The wife is concerned about
possible danger, but both men assure her they're completely safe. Guess what happens next?
Again, spoiler alert: Do not watch this until you have seen the film.
Trailers. In addition to the film's trailer in HD (available under special features), the film is
preceded by trailers in HD for My Bloody Valentine 3D, The Haunting in Connecticut, Saw V,
Cabin Fever and The Descent.
Successful makers of horror films have always found a way to tap into something deeper than
just the mechanics of making you jump or turning your stomach. Artists like David Cronenberg,
George Romero, Tobe Hooper or Don Coscarelli (on a good day) may differ in their means, but
they all find ways to get under your skin before they deliver the shocks. Clive Barker, even when
he's just producing and offering inspiration, is another such filmmaker, and on the rare occasion
of his venturing back into the medium, he deserved better treatment than Lionsgate gave The
Midnight Meat Train. While not a classic on the level of Barker's own Hellraiser or Nightbreed,
the film is easily superior to most of what passes for horror movies today. On Blu-ray its
audience can finally experience it in all its bloody glory.
Finally, if my recommendation isn't enough to tempt you, consider the thumbs-up of someone
with much weightier credentials: director Guillermo del Toro, creator of Pan's Labyrinth and the
Hellboy films. According to Barker, del Toro liked the film so much that he arranged for it to
have a theatrical release in Mexico instead of going direct to DVD. Now that's a horror fan with
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
Velodyne HGS-10 sub