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Midnight Meat Train: How Clive Barker's Latest Was Almost Derailed
The Quietus , October 22nd, 2008 17:53

Despite some misguided embellishing of Barker's classic short story and Lionsgate's attempts to sideline the film, The Midnight Meat Train still delivers finds Josh Saco.

The mighty Clive Barker returns to the big screen with an adaptation of one of his earliest short stories - The Midnight Meat Train. Distributed by Lionsgate (them who are guilty of Saw I-V and Hostel) and tagged with a hard R rating in the states and an 18 here, you know what you're in for - Barker's return to his dark, demented origins.

When a film is based on a book, my initial reaction is to cringe, cross my fingers and expect the worst, although I often inexplicably find myself defending films over the source material.

These are, of course, two totally different mediums. You can't compare the images conjured up in your limitless imagination as you absorb words and turn pages with those that a film forever fixes in place. When reading a book, you control it all. You control how that newspaper rolls down the street, how the train screeches into a station, the faces on that train as they angle themselves for the fastest route to the exit, and just how dark and dank those shadows in the tunnel are... On film, this is all dictated to you, the newspaper's dance is choreographed, the train has a limiter on it, the faces are actors and the shadows are cast. With a film, what you see is what you get.

The best horror directors recognise this. They leave as much up to the imagination as they show on the screen. Even though the final reveal will never be more terrible than what is in your head, sometimes it's worth the wait to see someone else's terror brought to life.

In the case of The Midnight Meat Train, the problem isn't so much the adaptation of the story as what bits someone, in their infinite wisdom, decided to add to it. In the short story, we meet Leon Kaufman, months into a waning love affair with New York City, taking his final journey on the so called "Midnight Meat Train". It's a story that wastes few words. We are genuinely there for the ride.

Books can do this. For some reason, films always set up the plot with needless exposition and background information. I often take issue with the need to close story lines, and give answers and reasons for things. But then I don't work in film, I just watch them.

So predictably, our celluloid train journey starts with the obligatory character introductions. There is the starving photographer Leon trying to capture New York on film and his lovely, supportive girlfriend who exploits her connections to the high-brow art world to land Leon a meeting with a prominent art dealer. The dealer encourages Leon to get more involved in what he's shooting and really get to the heart of the city.

But, you don't go to Clive Barker films because you care about the people in them. You go because you want to feel safe in the knowledge that your mind is not as depraved as his, that you are sane and he is not. As hammers collide with skulls and eyeballs pop out, you want to be shocked and think "Holy shit! What certifiable, sick fuck came up with this?!?!", not "Oh dear! his girlfriend is so sweet. What is he doing?"

Thankfully, those aspects of the film which actually stay true to the story are fantastic! Kitamura's directing is assured, the lighting throughout the scary sequences is clinical, in keeping with the butcher theme. Vinnie Jones is, dare I say, fantastic and terrifying. Everything about this film screams "classic".

And then there's the fuckin' love story, softly lit with warm colours, to make us all feel like we can "relate" better to this tale of terror. Perhaps this is a strange attempt to turn a gore fest into a credible "thriller" or a token gesture to the girls in the audience;either way it compromises the source material and the genre in general.

The film also managed to get mixed up in a pretty ridiculous studio fiasco (during a change over of the President of Acquisitions) which led to a very limited, contractually obligated, cinema release in the States: a mere 100 screens, many of them discount cinemas. The Midnight Meat Train was shoved under the carpet, its release date was pushed back and was fast tracked to a DVD release. Many people in the States did not had the chance to see this on the big screen, outside of a few filmfests. Much the same fate befell Mike Judge's cutting social commentary Idiocracy, a brilliant political film (as well as one of the most painfully stupid films you may ever endure, which is the point).

Barker called upon his fan base to step up and pressure Lionsgate into a wider release. Letters and emails poured in, but with little effect in the US, and were it not for the additional efforts of a few dedicated horror sites, bloodydisgusting.com and more recently fear.net, Midnight Meat Train would not even have received the release it has in the UK.

Frightfest and Gorezone have since picked up the cause and previewed it at their respective filmfests. Meanwhile back in the States, Fear.net has been streaming it and showing it for free on it's own cable channel.

All in all, I guess the true triumph of this film is the support that it has garnered before anyone even saw it. Everyone just had faith in Clive Barker and with good reason! Those aspects of his original story which survive in the film are brilliant, and makes this otherwise local train ride an express.

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