“It’s not as good as the book” is the most consistently leveled piece of criticism on any movie based on a book. There’s a very good reason for this. Books let you get into the inner life of characters, narration is a necessity rather than a crutch, and they have as much time as they like to develop plot, character, and subplot. Movies are limited by attention span and bladder size. The problem is that people keep trying to equate movies with novels as these are the two default sizes of thing in the relevant medium. The big secret, though, is that movies map much better onto novellas or even short stories, when the slimmer running times don’t give themselves over to the kinds of literary excess that can give you a hundred pages of a couple hobbits coming home.
The Midnight Meat Train is based on a Clive Barker short story of the same name from his excellent collection The Books of Blood. Serendipitously, the big horror writers also do better work when they’re forced to corral their imaginations into shorter running times. Even in Barker’s earlier career when he really was writing horror, he always gave the impression of vast worlds lurking just beyond the pages. In his modern incarnation of writing exclusively epic fantasy, he has given himself over to this impulse, I find that his work lacks teeth. (For what it’s worth, I feel the same way, for the most part, about Stephen King.) Meat Train, though, is all teeth, the kind of lean and mean prose that a writer has to fight against our natural garrulous instincts to produce.
The story starts out as a kind of urban slasher story. The book sets the action in New York, while the movie moves it to Los Angeles. The setting is incidental; any large urban center will do. This is about the alienation of the city. We are social animals, but we evolved in groups of up to 150 or so. Life in a city is a hive, and we’re exposed to more people than our brains really know how to categorize. We’re under a low hum of stress, and the people around us turn into background noise, nuisances, or threats. With the rise in crime of the ‘70s and ‘80s (the story was published in ’84), this last one became the primary concern. Everyone was one wrong step away from starring in their own horror movie.
Here, a mysterious and almost entirely mute killer known only as Mahogany (Vinnie Jones, in the kind of role his intimidating physicality and limited range is perfect for) slaughters people on the last train of the night. The killings are ridiculously brutal, and lovingly shot in that way only slasher movies bother to, lingering on the ultraviolence with lavish slow motion shots. My only gripe is that a lot of the gore (due to limitations in the budget), is digital, though the filmmakers generally confine themselves to that crutchin the middle of the action, switching to practical effects once the bodies have hit the floor as it were. Mahogany’s weapon of choice is a metal meat-tenderizing mallet, and the way he uses this thing, it has to be vorpal.
Photographer Leon (Bradley Cooper) stumbles across Mahogany’s killing sprees when he’s out late at night trying to up his picture game. After a gallery owner played by Brooke Shields (yes, Brooke Shields) tells him he needs to get better images, Leon decides that the only way to do this is throw himself into ridiculously dangerous situations and see what happens. After rescuing a model from a mugging and what was likely going to turn into a rape, she vanishes, something he notices in the newspaper the next day. This leads him to Mahogany, who spends his day working as a butcher, and his nights on the train.
Leon grows obsessed, sort of like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters, though he never sculpts Vinnie Jones in mashed potatoes, thus robbing us of potentially the greatest scene in recorded history. The pursuit changes him; formerly a vegetarian, he starts craving meat. Mahogany has changed as well. We get a single scene of him scraping what appear to be nipples or fleshy barnacles off his torso, which he then saves in bottles in his medicine cabinet. I don’t think I’d want to see that episode of Hoarders.
The most troubling is that the police are singularly unhelpful. They don’t believe in some city slasher, but as the story goes on, it becomes more apparent that they do, and they’re covering it up for some reason. A major question lingers: where are the bodies? These people vanish into thin air.
Leon manages to tail Mahogany to the site of the killings — the titular train — where he witnesses the soulless butchery of the act. Mahogany doesn’t just beat these people to death, he hangs them upside down on meathooks, strips them of eyes and teeth, and packs their belongings in plastic. He’s preparing them.
When he inevitably discovers Leon, though, he doesn’t kill him. Leon awakens with a strange symbol carved into his chest — the same one on Mahogany’s — and that’s when the true horror begins. This story is brilliant because it creates a fascinating paradox: why would the powers that be sign off on a madman butchering whole trainloads of people in the middle of the night? Then it solves that paradox by making Mahogany not just acceptable, but necessary for the continued functioning of the city. Barker isn’t just crafting a ripping good horror yarn, he’s claiming that cities themselves are built and maintained on the backs of unsolved murders. While this is certainly a dim view, it’s hard to find fault with it.
The Midnight Meat Train was written back when Barker was a hungry young writer trying to break into horror. It’s disturbing and frightening, and it also melds two great subgenres, slasher and cosmic horror, into a seamless whole where it’s hard to imagine one without the other. The adaptation is a faithful one, though not to a fault, and is a great example of how a lean story can flourish in inventive hands.