Clive Barker is a challenging author to adapt. His later work is nicely lyrical dark fantasy, but it’s hardly cinematic. His early work is slight and heavy on the gore, though, so that’s what usually gets turned into films. And, of course, everyone eyes greedily the franchise potential of “the next Hellraiser“. In general, then, Barker adaptations work best when they use the old “inspired by” trick to take the framework of the story and do something more cinematically appropriate, as is the case with Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train, a somewhat overlooked film which was the victim of studio shenanigans (why, yes, it was released by Lionsgate).

Leon (played by a pre-breaking Bradley Cooper), is a vegan photographer with a straining relationship with his girlfriend and a desperate desire to hit it big in the art world and get away from his current work, photographing crime scenes freelance. After being told that his art-school deep photos simply won’t cut it, he delves into the dark heart of the city and interrupts an attempted gang-rape. The next morning he learns that the intended victim has disappeared and Leon finds the police oddly indifferent to his photos of the possible perpetrators. While investigating, Leon stumbles upon Mahogany, a butcher who has been killing people on the late-night subways. Becoming increasingly unhinged at the refusal of anyone to believe him, Leon continues investigating, and eventually learns of a vast conspiracy behind Mahogany’s actions. Eventually Leon learns that Mahogany, and an unknown amount of other people in prominent positions, are arranging the murders to feed a race of subterranean creatures beneath New York, who only permit humans to live on the island (or at all it is implied) in exchange for the meat Mahogany provides. In a bleakly nihilistic ending, everything Leon values is stripped from him and he is employed as Mahogany’s replacement.

One of the most common complaints about horror films is that they exploit voyeuristic urges in the audience. Lots of films have responded to that by running with it, but Kitamura makes the idea of seeing and being seen a central element of the film’s style. Leon is almost always framing some or all of his actions through a camera lens. POV shots, from a multitude of characters pervade the film, and there are an awful lot of gore shots involving eyes. But not only that, there’s a repetition of mirror shots, reflections, seeing someone through a door or window, and numerous occasions when characters “see” the audience in some way or another. While never directly breaking the fourth wall, the film goes out of its way to make the viewer an active participant in the story in subtle (and not subtle) ways quite effectively.

Beyond that, the film is slickly produced. It’s a reverse-urbanoia film, a film ultimately about the coldness and anonymity of the city and the terrors that could lurk there so easily because there is simply too much going on for anyone to notice them. The film also teases around the “urban legend” theme that appears from time to time in Barker’s work. It’s an effective combo, but I ultimately think I value the placement of the events in the city is where the film draws it’s power. As I’ve said in the past, the classism and racism of most rural horror/urbanoia films puts me off, and the “backwoods cannibal” is a common trope there. It’s nice to see a reversal of that, even if “cannibals in the subway” is itself a bit of a trope, particularly in British and Euro horror, since Raw Meat at least.

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