Easily the best Clive Barker adaptation since the first Hellraiser film, Ryuhei Kitamura's The Midnight Meat Train is so absolutely a "horror fans only" experience that I'm not surprised that Lionsgate wants to give it only a cursory theatrical release before dumping it into DVD. I do not mean that as a knock on the film. As a matter of fact, this is certainly one of the most effective horror films of the year -- but man, oh man... it would be a really tough sell on 1,200 screens. It's kind of an unfair catch-22 where certain horror movies are concerned: if you "go dark," dabble in grimness, and don't cater to the under-18 crowd, then there's a good chance your "hardcore" horror movie will debut on DVD (at best) or, like The Mist and The Ruins, arrive in theaters very quietly.
But let's hear it for the filmmakers who still insist on pushing the envelope, giving the horror fans something dark and challenging, and focusing more on mood, atmosphere, and scares more than in catering to the widest audience possible. Frankly, if The Midnight Meat Train hits only 100 screens (which is Lionsgate's current plan), I'd take that as a compliment paid to the movie: This is not a mainstream horror flick. If all you know of horror films is stuff like Prom Night, consider yourself warned.
Based upon Barker's gruesome short story, The Midnight Meat Train is about Leon (Bradley Cooper), an aspiring photographer who is instructed by a snooty agent (Brooke Shields) to delve deep into the underbelly of New York City. To this end, our hero (?) decides to take the subterranean route, but while snapping some photos in a subway station late one night, Leon catches a glimpse of a towering and mysterious figure (the effortlessly malicious Vinnie Jones), and he begins investigating the man's late-night activities. Wow, what a bad idea.
Suffice to say that "The Butcher" earns his nickname on a nightly basis: He stalks the nearly-deserted subway trains for unwitting victims, and his favorite methods of dispatch include a nasty hook and a giant hammer. (He uses both weapons with much skill and alarming frequency.) And just as Leon decides he's had enough of the one-way cat & mouse game, the Butcher catches wind of the photographer and manages to drag him into the horror.
What sounds like a basic "train slasher" flick is actually quite a bit more intriguing than that. Astute viewers (or those who've read the source material) may figure out the reason for the murders early on, but that doesn't stop Mr. Kitamura from doling out ample portions of grim gore, unsettling atmosphere, and a consistently bleak tone. So it's not exactly a picnic of a flick, but hell, who expects a picnic from a Clive Barker story?
Bradley Cooper anchors the film very well, offering an ambitious but decent guy at the outset -- and a slowly devolving obsessive as the flick marches on. The lovely Leslie Bibb contributes a very welcome sense of warmth and humanity to the proceedings -- which only serves to make the nasty stuff even nastier. Also, Cooper and Bibb share a few quiet scenes together that give us an actual 'rooting interest' in this twisted tale. Roger Bart adds a little color as the couple's artsy pal, and Brooke Shields delivers a few cool scenes as a brutally honest art exhibitor.
Best of all -- and the main reason that The Midnight Meat Train will prove to be a hit among horror freaks (if perhaps nobody else) -- is that screenwriter Jeff Buhler manages to maintain the sly sense of dread that permeates the best of Barker's horror tales. Combined with an unflinching (and surprisingly artistic) eye from a very slick director, this is one seriously grim little tale. It's the sort of horror flick you'll want to follow up with The Wizard of Oz or maybe The Princess Bride -- but I mean that as a compliment.