An Online Universe is proud to present a semi-regular series of articles about the state of 21st Century horror films by Ben Buckingham. We’re very pleased to be able to share the insight of someone with such knowledge and passion for the genre [Ed].
Midnight Meat Train
Popcorn Horror and The Separated Human
Revisiting films often makes for an intriguing journey, moving forwards and backwards as we return to a past point in cultural and personal history, seeing the distance travelled since and invigorating with renewed eyes. When time permits, I will take a fresh look at the horror films that populated our collective consciousness with new nightmares for a new millennium. Let’s say from 2001 through to 2010. The world has turned enough for us to apply some distance to the experience these films engender, to see the social, political, cultural frameworks they inhabited with a clearer eye. In our first entry, Midnight Meat Train (2008), seeing can become an inescapably dangerous act.
One of the pleasures of revisiting older material is seeing now famous actors playing outside of their familiar roles. Newly minted heart-throb and Oscar nominated actor, Bradley Cooper, has been an intriguing presence in many unrecognised films, from Wet Hot American Summer (2001) to Hit and Run (2012). It is with Midnight Meat Train that he steps most noticeably out of safe terrain. This is a full-blooded, dripping work of abject splatter. If you ever wanted to see Bradley Cooper get into a hardcore knife/mallet fight with Vinnie Jones on a speeding train filled with eviscerated corpses dangling from meat-hooks, well this is your lucky day.
The brutality is unequivocally announced by the title, Midnight Meat Train. It is a title to stun the lips and set the tongue a quiver. It will surely repel or attract as many prospective viewers as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) once did, with which it shares more than a delicious title. Both films examine realms dominated by the abattoir, with humanity as the meat-hook victim. This however is a drastically different era. Gone are the flies and the back-woods ambiance. The ante is increased: a city on the menu instead of some lone travellers and graphic bodily damage. This is 21st century horror; stainless steel penetrates every aspect of our lives, with the grinding of humanity into pulp occurring every day under our noses, and maybe even with our consent.
Midnight Meat Train has an unusually international heritage for an American horror film. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, a Japanese film-maker known for hyper-active action/splatter movies such as Versus (2000) and Azumi (2003), and based on a short story by English novelist/film-maker/painter Clive Barker, who also produced. Barker is perhaps best known for Hellraiser (1987) and his evocative fantasy-horror art features prominently in an art gallery scene here. Barker’s overtly inquisitive interest in the dismantling of bodies and humanity’s parasitic nightmares work well here. Transported to a contemporary American cement jungle, the brief and simple story is fleshed out with a respectable level of skill and imagination. Some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, and as usual the need for an explosive climax undermines much of the intense psychological horror that has been ramping up beautifully for the first two-thirds. With so much else to offer these are minor, if disappointing quibbles.
It is, in part, classic popcorn horror, tapping social and individual fears with a high “eewww” factor. The horrific tale appears simple: the Butcher (Vinnie Jones, whose silent, business-suited performance generates an unusually ambivalent villain) is carving up victims on late night trains; just another vanishing act in a dangerous city. But this is the meat train, ferrying the nightly selection of corpses deep underground as food for something darker and hungrier than the average serial killer. There really is something worse than private corporations running the public transport network.
The perfectly grand-guignol title signals three dual motifs which will govern the mise-en-scene: darkness/light, flesh/metal, and modernity/barbarity. The visuals are exquisite. Composition and lighting capture the required tone, of reality and nightmare colliding. Neon lights dominate, dictating the terms of the image as it cascades across rooms, swelling up out of the fittings like melting nitrate. The purified white of train interiors rattle the very darkness they travel through, creating artificial havens in the deep, hidden places. As the film speeds along it becomes increasingly hard to ignore the cattle-truck qualities of our daily train trips; the polished, sterilised steel seats of the metro begin to look suspiciously like platters.
The aesthetic quality of meat is gleefully toyed with as the raw simplicity of a steel mallet assaulting flesh is demonstrated through the art of CGI, mastered here rather than abused (if slightly cheap looking, but such things must be accepted as not every film can have the Weinstein’s catering budget). A woman’s head is smashed from her body as we the viewer experience the brief moments before and after through a point of view shot, spinning violently across the train carriage and slamming into the floor.
The act of seeing is paramount, with ocular damage occurring numerous times in graphic detail, suggesting a Peeping Tom-esque parable of the human price of objectification. The danger of The Look. Something in the execution here is different to that of most murder films. They are less murders than they are functional acts, (grotesquely) disassembling commodities; they are tasks in a thankless job. Identities are broken down and repackaged in pristine plastic as the artifacts of personality are removed; clothes, hair, nails, eyes, humans made meat. It is this suggestion that we are simply cattle, with cities as factories for growing and processing meat, which creates the lasting shiver down the spine.
Ultimately it is the horrifying ideas which power this film, not the gruesome actions. After the brief, ridiculously over the top introduction to the Butcher’s bloody antics, we view a metropolitan street, sped up and soft focus, all hustle and bustle, waiting for Leon (Cooper), our hero and a photographer by trade, to step into focus. The frame catches him, and he in turn lifts his camera and catches us. It is his narrowing of desire through a lens which begins his journey into the dark labyrinth beneath the city. He needs to see more, to capture the perfect image of the rotting city. His camera is his vision. In the films most heart wrenching scene, his fiancée attempts to pull him back from the brink. Telling him to photograph what he loves, she performs for him and his camera. But every click brings forth a nightmare memory of meat and violence. His personality visibly breaking apart, crying and spiritually damaged, we experience his separation from his love, from who he was. He cannot purify his vision, his look is forever corrupted. This is the parallel horror to murder and desecration: the damaged fate of the survivor.
By Ben Buckingham
Follow Ben on Twiiter: @dissolvedpet