The Midnight Meat Train: A Symphony of Blood and Blade

Clive Barker’s Riding the Midnight Meat Train remains to be one of my favorite pieces of fiction. A young man moves to New York City, the mythical city of his dreams, only to find the ugly monstrosity that permeates every layer of the grim metropolis. The piece follows twin narratives from the perspective of the newcomer to New York City and a deranged, serial murderer who ritually slaughters people on a late night train service. Naturally, when I discovered that a film adaption had been made, I did everything in my conniving little power to obtain a copy and devour it. The results were very …satisfying.

The central, awed, country-boy protagonist is replaced with professional photographer, Leon, who’s attempting to break into the art world so that he can professionally photograph what he loves, which is apparently the city. After a scathing review from a gallery curator and art critic Leon becomes obsessed with capturing ‘the heart of the city’. He gets a breakthrough when he photographs a group of hoodlums threatening a woman with armed robbery and rape, which he eventually stops, but not without snapping a few career making shots. She thanks him, gets on a train and is reported missing the next day. Leon’s patron is impressed with his rape shots and tells him that if he can get another two images which are equally powerful she will put them in an upcoming show. I am loathe to give any more of the plot away, but suffice to say that Leon takes to the streets, begins taking happy snaps of the seamy side of New York and runs into Vinnie Jones, a slaughterhouse worker, the resident killer of the film and greatest piece of casting in the history of horror. Leon links Vinnie (whose character has no name and shall be referred to from here on as ‘the Butcher’ because it seems the only appropriate moniker to apply to him) to the disappearance of the girl he saved and a delicate game of cat and mouse between the two forms the bulk of the film.   

The narrative, as a whole, is secondary to the enjoyment of this film. This is not to say that the narrative is bad, quite the contrary, it merely takes a back seat to the staggering cinematography and brilliant mise en scene. Like the fiction, the film presents us with the twin narratives of killer and victim. Leon’s life is depicted in a pallet of warm browns, soft reds and oranges and exudes everything we would associate with safe domesticity. This safe, warm existence, which drips with the trappings of simple humanity is interspersed with the likes of this: 

It is no accident that the murderer in this film is a butcher who works in a slaughterhouse and both the grim, ritualistic fashion in which he dispatches his victims and the motif of blood on the cold, sterile steel of the train carriage mirror his occupation and workplace perfectly. This is further reinforced by the treatment of the victim’s bodies, which are ritually saved, de-boned, hung and bled. Images of the human carcasses hung in the train mirror the cattle carcasses hung in the slaughter house and killer interacts with both in precisely the same fashion. In effect, the horror derived from this film comes from a reinforcement that we are meat, flesh is flesh and, when stripped of the superficial trappings of civilization and personal relationships which we associate with humanity, there is little to differentiate us from the food that we eat. This is a film that reminds us that while human beings may be the most ubiquitous predators on the planet, we are not above the food chain. For much of western civilisation, the terror of being eaten by a lion or other large predator has by and large disappeared from our consciousness and the notion of cannibalism has been relegated to the realm of lone nutcases. The Midnight Meat Train resurrects our primal fear of being reduced to nothing more than a commodity and being consumed.

The process which the Butcher converts his victims to meat is a startlingly fast and de-humanising process. When all of the bodies are hung side by side, hairless and upside down, it’s very hard to tell one from the other. It’s like trying to recognise the cow you’ve raised after you’ve sent it to slaughter and it’s hanging with all the other dead cows. There is something deeply unsettling in this image and concept of humans as meat and it lies in the inability to find anything distinctly human which would prevent us from being classified as such.

With such powerful material in the killer’s narrative, it creates the unfortunate side-effect of making Leon’s narrative somewhat lack-lustre. This is not to say that Leon’s narrative is worthless, in fact, it is essential as a foil for the sterile, de-humanising trappings of the Butcher’s narrative, but it is lacking a few key areas. The worst offender is the depiction of Leon’s relationship with his girlfriend, Maya, and this is a really tragic failing of the film because, if the relationship worked on the screen its impact would have been immense. The dialogue between the two characters often seems forced and ill-conceived but it is sufficent to understand the functions it serves within the film. Over the course of the film we see the darkness which Leon photographs in the city bleed into his domestic life and it is only through his relationship with Maya that we can see such a degeneration.

Ultimately, however, this film is a celebration of blood and flesh. It strips away the external factors which we associate with humanity (such as our possessions, occupations and relationships) and delves into the interior. It asks what we are, when we take these trappings of humanity away and the answer is simply ‘meat’.

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~ by Morgan on November 11, 2008.

4 Responses to “The Midnight Meat Train: A Symphony of Blood and Blade”

  1. Man, this movie pissed me off in so many ways it’s not even funny. Review forthcoming.

  2. Look forward to reading it 🙂

  3. I’ll be interested to see some dissent. Boredom breeds without it.

    What I noticed most strongly about the movie was a distinct shift away from the satirical critique of American society (one quite in agreement with what I one day hope to write on Stephen King’s America) and toward a simple and wonderous reimagining of what onscreen violence can be. To me, the short story and the film are two entirely different beasts, but I enjoy both in equal measure.

  4. I’d agree with that ‘un right there, Mr. Smith. I’d posit that’s something to do with Ryuhei Kitamura and, more generally, the cinematic viewpoints that have been coming out of Japan and Japanese horror particularly in the last ten years or so. Japan is both more and less sympathetic to American culture than one might imagine, and as such a critique on America is less likely to originate, auteuristically speaking, from such a place.

    The sequences with incredibly involved or psychotically inventive camera setups (you know the ones I mean) reminded me greatly of Takashi Miike’s work (Ichi the Killer, particularly), which isn’t surprising, since Kitamura is a contemporary of Miike’s in the Watch Me Fuck With Your Preconceptions of What a Camera Can Do-brigade.

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