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I don’t know what it was about the trailer for The Midnight Meat Train that drew me in, but I had been anticipating finally seeing it for a long while. Maybe it was seeing Bradley Cooper in a lead role, against his usual type, (and now of course he is huge after The Hangover); maybe it was the bleak, metallic starkness of the subway car surroundings; or perhaps it was that it’s based on a Clive Barker short story. Now, if I were to pick any of the horror series from the 80s and 90s as my favorite, it would be an easy answer—Hellraiser. That being said, I think Barker’s involvement really piqued my interest. Upon viewing, though, I started to forget about his connection because of how very straightforward the suspense/thriller was. Only at the end, when everything that had happened is revealed to be part of something much bigger, does Barker’s stamp appear. And boy, does it ever. Ryûhei Kitamura has added some style and mood to this thing and crafted one of the more enjoyable horror films I’ve seen in quite some time.

There are some conveniences for sure, but I tend to look beyond them in a film like this; one that isn’t trying to win any awards, just trying to entertain for a couple hours. Photographer Leon Kauffman (Cooper) is trying his hardest to break out and find a niche to make him the money needed to finally propose to his girl Maya, played by Leslie Bibb. After meeting with the authority on photography in the art world—a fascinating bit part from Brooke Shields, picking her out of Hollywood obscurity—he realizes that he must catch glimpses of the city more provocative and dangerous than those he has been. After following some gangbangers down to the subway, taking their photo while terrorizing a young model, Leon’s life is changed forever. He steps up to these hoodlums, saves the girl, and eventually catches a glimpse of the uniquely ringed finger holding the door open for the almost/soon to be victim. The finger belongs to Mahogany, a mysterious man playing butcher by day and possibly butcher, with a different sort of meat altogether, by night.

The film then sets out to show Cooper’s spiral downward into the conspiracies running through his head. The cops don’t believe his theories and neither does his fiancé, but it doesn’t stop him from putting his life in danger by stalking Mahogany on his daily travels, snapping photos as he goes, photos that get him into a prestigious gallery showing, one that could catapult his career, but also photos that haunt his dreams, driving him to discover what is really happening on the 2:00am train. His nightly journeys lead to some interesting camerawork with plenty of angular shots as well as the utilization of multiple reflective surfaces. Mirrors, windows, and even pools of blood are used to show events occurring behind the camera. Well, scratch that, events occurring to the camera, which is standing in for a character. One effective technique here is that there are many instances where the lens becomes our eyes; we watch as Mahogany comes at us with a knife or meat mallet, allowing the audience to enter the film and its carnage.

There are other flourishes that standout as well, namely a spectacularly shot climatic fight sequence at the end where the camera whooshes from inside the subway car to outside, weaving in and out while it circles the mayhem transpiring inside. Yes, there are times when the computer effects work shows to be blatantly manufactured, (Ted Raimi’s eye can attest to this), but it can’t necessarily take you out of a tale so removed from reality in the first place. Even the fact that Vinnie Jones’ malicious killer never utters a word adds to the atmosphere of the film. His sneers and wry smile do so much more to express what his character is thinking than words ever could. Jones is a force to be reckoned with, one who’s secrets await us to be discovered along with the truth to why these midnight murders are happening.

While, like most horrors, the look and feel, along with the villain’s performance, really make or break them, the rest of the acting here lives up to its end of the job also. Bibb is a bit overbearing in a role that never adds very much to the plot anyways, but you can’t fault her as much as the weakly written role. Her actions are the most head-shakingly convenient; we watch her do things that her character probably wouldn’t do, but which are crucial to the progression of the story. I really enjoy Roger Bart, slowly becoming a genre staple with this and his turn in Hostel II, as the friend, a bit odd being that his face and emotive qualities scream villain; and Tony Curran as the train conductor is nicely foreboding and mysterious. But it is with Cooper, the lead in the story and ultimately the man for whom the film hinges on, that excels. You believe in his character throughout, whether in love with Maya and his work or becoming increasingly paranoid about what he thinks he sees. Cooper is invested in Leon and his actions show this fact; especially in the final shot, bringing chills as an ending bookmark to the film. It’s a conclusion that cycles back to the opening scene, adding just one more layer of intrigue to an already successful exercise in brutality, the human psyche, and even a bit of the fantastically surreal.

The Midnight Meat Train 8/10

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photography:
[1] Bradley Cooper (“Leon”) stars in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s The Midnight Meat Train.
[2] Vinnie Jones (“Mahogany”) stars in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s The Midnight Meat Train.

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