Saturday, November 1, 2008

Finding What's There

There’s something appealing about seeing a film that a studio has essentially buried. Certainly there have been plenty of cases where it happened not because the picture was bad but because of infighting at the studio or, even better, the film was considered not commercial enough to go to the trouble of releasing. This, of course, may mean that there’s something to it. For various reasons, Lionsgate decided not to put THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN into theaters even though it had the cache of Clive Barker’s name attached to it, not to mention the fact that the company had already achieved a good amount of success in the horror genre, particularly with the SAW series. I saw the trailer with a few films last winter which was fairly well cut but probably hurt by the voiceover gravely announcing the title at the end, causing baffled laughter from the audience—just because it’s what Barker’s story was called probably wasn’t a good enough reason. That doesn’t seem to be the main cause of the lack of release but it probably didn’t help matters. There’s not really a case to be made for this being cinematic injustice along the lines of IDIOCRACY but considering some horror films that I’ve paid to see over the past ten years it probably did deserve at least a little better than it got.

Photographer Leon (Bradley Cooper) is goaded into showing his work around in order to get his career going by girlfriend Maya (POPULAR’s Leslie Bibb). Gallery owner Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields) seems intrigued by his photos that attempt to display the real city but rejects his work, telling him to really find what’s out there. He then does just that, wandering around the dangerous-looking unnamed city (shot in downtown L.A.) until various events lead him to believe that a mysterious grey-suited individual (Vinnie Jones) just might be responsible for disappearances that have been occurring. As he begins to follow the man around and investigate who he is, Leon finds himself becoming affected by what he is learning, not knowing that the real truth is more horrible than he ever realized.

Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, TRAIN is extremely stylish lending a visual approach that makes it genuinely striking to look at throughout. Much of it is pretty obviously inspired by the likes of SEVEN and THE MATRIX but it has its own vibe, enough that I found myself more intrigued by the mystery elements than the Clive Barker horror that I knew was coming right from the start. There’s a deliberate out-of-time and out-of-place feel to the film—the lead still develops his film in a darkroom and does research at the library looking at microfiche, but characters are seen using cell phones. For that matter, it doesn’t seem to be set in any city that currently exists. Much of this style is what stands out as best about the movie and there is certainly more attention paid to it than there is to things like character motivation. When the lead is wandering a dangerous part of town early on snapping away his camera at pretty dangerous looking individuals it’s hard not to think that, artist or not, he’s kind of an idiot for doing so. It’s that sort of human disconnect that mars the film and caused me to slightly check out early on. We’re never even told very much about this guy at the start outside of the fact that he eats tofu so when he begins to change his behavior it doesn’t really mean very much. It’s not always made very clear how what’s going on is affecting him and why. This feeling extends to learning what is going on in that train at night—what’s occurring is clearly supernatural in some way (how much is clear by the end) but I’m not sure if the dividing line between the real, the unreal and when we’ve crossed from one to the other is always clear. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe looking for coherence within what is surreal isn’t the way to go, but it still seems to be a case of exploring certain literary concepts that don’t fully come across in a cinematic fashion. It’s possible that I was being overly critical in my head because some of it was so genuinely stylish that I wanted it to be better. Certain individual scenes are extremely well done, particularly a chase through a slaughterhouse which is expertly cut and staged. The gore, for the record, is at time extremely nasty in the murder sequences but also pretty clever in that nastiness. There’s a fair amount of CGI used but for once, unlike all the times the digital tricks seem to be used by a hack director going “Wheeeee!!” here it’s actually well-utilized and at times striking, particularly during a fight scene on a moving subway car. Bottom line: though flawed in its storytelling, the degree of stylishness at least makes it consistently interesting and if it had gotten a wide release it might have gotten some fairly surprised reviews from critics willing to focus on more than just the gore. Of the cast, Vinnie Jones acquits himself the best with his steady, imposing presence even though he doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in the whole film. Peter Jacobson, now playing Dr. Taub on HOUSE, has a supporting role and Ted Raimi appears briefly.

Clive Barker appeared at the New Beverly a few nights ago to introduce the film and in crazed sort of way told about how Lionsgate killed the wide release of the film when an executive changeover happened, putting it out in dollar houses scattered throughout the country in August to zero fanfare. He was asked a question about the title which he didn’t really answer, but it seemed that it was an issue when the title at the beginning of the film read simply MIDNIGHT TRAIN but in the end credits it read the full THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN. Whatever it should be called, the audience seemed to like it and it’s safe to say that it’ll develop a cult whenever it comes out on DVD. Horror fans will want to take a look at it then, even if it’s too bad that they couldn’t have seen it in a theater and yeah, they really should have done something about that title.


Unknown said...

What I liked about the film in many ways was the promise of what it could be vs. what it ended up being, since once it started providing explanations (like many horror movies) it lost some of its mystery. It's a very strange movie no matter how you look at it though, and I dig that. There's something about the central concept of this fantastic/superhuman serial murderer riding late night subway cars that's terrific and the film matches that in the opening act with a wild visual style that I was genuinely impressed by.

I wish it had opened wider because though audiences surely would've been divided on it (they all are on Clive Barker's work, even the most successful of the adaptations), it certainly would've scared the shit out of some. For its audacity, even with its many failings, I thought it one of the most interesting horror movies from the U.S. in a while.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Very well stated! There's not much I can add to that. The film is flawed, but at least there's some stuff going on there.