I’ve been talking to my kids about passive resistance versus “just wars” lately. On Tuesday, at Best Buy, looking through the new Blu-rays, I found Gandhi newly-released and even on sale. What better way to open up the discussion than by Sir Dickie’s pedantic history lesson? But then I remembered: this was the week that “The Midnight Meat Train” finally arrives.
So which to choose? The film about one of the great heroes of non-violence, or the one about a subway mass-murderer who kills people with a twenty-pound stainless steel hammer? Sometimes you have to go with your principles.
It’s very, very unlikely that, as a public radio listener, you are the least bit interested in a film like this. As a film critic unusually sympathetic to the aims of horror as an art form, I have an uphill battle here. If you’re new to the genre, you don’t want to start with this film; it’s a grim one indeed. But for those who find something stirring deep within them when they hear the names “Pinhead” or “Candyman,” you’re going to want to meet Mahogany.
With the title “The Midnight Meat Train” — a little like throwing down a gauntlet — British writer Clive Barker announced himself in 1984. It was the first story in the first book of his seminal four-book-cycle of horror shorts, “The Books of Blood”. Piquant. Upsetting. Having finally produced a movie version of the story, Barker has delivered a film that seems to have missed its moment by a good ten years.
But it has its moments, all right, not the least of which is the creation of another of Barker’s horror icons. Mahogany, as essayed by a rigid Vinnie Jones, is huge, square-headed, Germanic-looking, incongruously wearing a suit and immaculate white shirt.
How he keeps that shirt so clean, when he goes (the consummate professional) about his business of “processing” lonely subway riders with the ghastly butcher’s tools in his big, black veterinarian’s bag, is one of the movie’s best jokes. (Even better, the film’s most inspired realization is that the swinging handholds in a subway car look just like the meat hooks on a killing floor.) You might as well ask what he does with the bodies afterwards. On second thought, don’t ask.
Leon (Bradley Cooper) asks. Like the seemingly ordinary James Stewart in “Rear Window”, he’s ultimately obsessional: he Wants To Know. Where is the beating, diseased heart of The City? Add to this that he is a photographer, a profession that comes with the mistaken belief that the lens is a wall protecting his soul.
But as anyone who abhors horror (maybe that couplet is worth serious examination) will tell you, the very process of looking under rocks forever changes you. Some of us who seek out the bleakest of the genre agree enthusiastically.
Homo sap likes to think that he is special, and is here for a reason. He does not like to be reminded of how unceremoniously he can be broken. Battles over evolution are so fierce because he doesn’t even want to think of himself as an animal – let alone meat. I’ve defended the ruthless honesty of the horror genre at length. You can look it up if you’re interested. Or buy me a beer and I’ll bore you to death with crazy theories about James Joyce and aesthetic arrest.
“The Midnight Meat Train” would have benefitted if its younger actors had had interesting characters to work with. For the suspense to function, we’d have to identify with them. A coherent script would have been nice, too – or better yet, a far more irrational one. And the director, Ryuhei Kitamura, might be too Japanese to have a feeling for an American city, though there’s something of Tokyo’s anonymous modernism in that sterile, indelible subway car.
Though Vinnie Jones is only ten years older than Bradley Cooper, the film is in large part about the silent, remote father, and the need to topple him. It’s a film that knows we are deceiving ourselves when we think that when we finally replace him, we won’t pick up his bag. When the shock of recognition comes, that’s the greatest horror of all – the stuff of deep, troubled dreams.