Tasty: A critical review of “The Midnight Meat Train” (2007)

“The Midnight Meat Train” is one of those films that gives you exactly what it says on the label. There will be a train, it will have meat on it and it’s going to hit its stops at midnight. So that should wrap that up. As for what the hell any of that means, and why we should care, the film has mixed results in providing answers. Nevertheless, it does manage to pull off the neat trick of satisfying gore hounds and film aesthetes alike.

As an art photographer, Leon (Bradley Cooper) is not being taken seriously by the community. His photos are good, but they’re not great, and they definitely aren’t original. He’s told he’s just re-treading the same territory every other “edgy” photographer in the city (is it supposed to be New York?) already has. In an effort to produce something singular, Leon starts haunting the subway at night, where he starts following another rider, a silent and imposing man (Vinne Jones) who appears to be murdering riders for some larger terrible purpose.

“Meat Train” has genuinely earned a quiet cult status, and it seems to have done so on three strengths. The first is visual. The movie was directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, who rose to fame with the film “Versus,” a stylish Japanese swordplay fantasy that I’ve never seen but sounds totally up my alley. He carried his gift for slick, exciting images over to “Meat Train,” and the result is a film that’s very aware of itself in a good way. Fights are photographed at odd angles, and tense chase scenes are littered with portals and mirrors, as if the city itself were studying the characters on screen.

The second reason is literary. The movie is a Clive Barker adaptation, which gives it literary horror cred. And it’s a pretty solid adaptation at that, keeping Barker’s flair for the occult and carnivalesque. The result is a narrative that evolves from a straight serial killer movie to one with supernatural suggestions in a surprisingly organic way.

The final reason is a certain cast member. That’s right, it might be hard to believe, but that is Ted Raimi, the brother of director Sam Raimi, as one of the nameless victims.

Oh, also, there’s Bradley Cooper I guess. Long before producing “Joker” or acting in “American Sniper,” Cooper was hacking up meat people on a train. At midnight, no less. And two years before “The Hangover” too.

Most of the cast is decent or thereabouts, but at least they all seem to be having fun, particularly Brooke Shields as the owner of an art gallery. The big standout is Jones as the butcher and suspected serial killer Mahogany. It’s a necessarily physical performance, but Jones–with his background as both a heavy in various thrillers and a footballer in old Blighty–is more than up for the challenge, handling fights and conveying silent subtleties with ease.

The film does not have any problems doing anything. Its problems occur when it does too much. A few of the actors look like they’re having too much fun, for example. There’s a little goofy scenery chewing, which is acceptable when its source is some nameless subway thugs but harder to take from the two leads. And sometimes the gore, which the film relies on quite heavily, is delightfully queasy, while other times it’s eyeballs-popping-out ridiculous. For a film that built its mystery so well, that’s disappointingly jarring. Also, the ending could have been about three endings shorter than it was. “Meat Train” is not a long movie, but it feels curiously padded in its final act.

So “Midnight Meat Train” is not steak, but it is a quality horror hamburger, maybe even one of those nice hamburgers at a sit-down place. Perhaps there is something more to it. If one were clever, one could make an argument that Leon and Mahogany mirror each other in their seemingly ceaseless quest to produce something grand for a fickle audience–art in one case and ritualistic murder in the other; in fact, one could suggest both characters mirror the directors of so-called “smart horror” movies, those who try desperately to prove to critics and fans that their work deserves to be called art and not exploitation, and that the film’s constant look back on itself is a literal reflection of that symbiotic relationship. If one were clever. But, in the meantime, here’s more squished eyeballs.

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