Saturday, October 02, 2010

Movies: The 10:45 Meat Train, Local.

Raw Meat, release in '72 under the name Death Line, suffers somewhat from misleading genre expectations. The logline, involving a clan of cannibals prowling the London Underground, and the delightfully lurid title can't help but suggest either a British Texas Chainsaw Massacre or a precursor to Clive Barker's Midnight Meat Train (Raw Meat arrived a decade and some change before Barker's short story published). Sadly, the film is neither of those things. Happily, what it turns out to be is a pleasing, if slight, hybrid gothic fantasy/policer with some nice characterizations, some eye-catching gore work, and a surprisingly sympathetic baddie.

The film intertwines three parallel plots: 1) the police investigation for a missing government official, 2) the rocky romance of the young couple who were the last two people to see the official alive, and 3) the desperate survival efforts of a cannibalistic morlock who, with the death of his female companion, must face the final extinction of his tribe.

Of these three narrative threads, only the story of the couple falls flat. The chemistry between the two, a young American man presumably waiting out 'Nam in the UK and flighty British woman, is notable mainly in its complete absence. The film already casual pace grinds to a near halt whenever it's time for these two to take center stage. I do give actress Sharon Gurney credit for rocking the urban she-mullet look though. Her hipped-up distaff take on the work-in-front, party-in-the-back hairstyle can be found once again roaming freely through the streets of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and she deserves credit as a fashion pioneer.

The police investigation scenes are carried - or, rather, stolen and carried off - by a hammy Donald Pleasance, whose Inspector Calhoun is a poor man's Morse, a curiously fastidious crank, with a wonderful Wallace-ish Home Valley of West Yorkshire accent. Pleasance seems to delight in Calhoun's petty displays of office tyranny and his vague disregard for civilians - he seems to find crime victims and their demands the only thing that louses up what would otherwise be a pretty cushy gig - and this delight turns what might otherwise be tedious misanthropy into something more comedic and charming. The investigation plot also has a nice cameo by Christopher Lee, who takes the opportunity to trade barbs with Pleasance in a nifty little ham-off.

Balanced against the tone of the police plot, we get the grim adventures of a character identified only as "the Man." Part of a small group of male and female workers that were trapped in the tunnels in a cave in years ago, when we meet "Man," he's trying fruitlessly to keep his bedridden companion - "the Woman" - from death's door. When she passes, Man's priorities shift and he begins to look for a new mate among the people he previously considered foodstuffs. Re-enter the mulleted young woman from plotline one . . .

There's a lot that make no sense whatsoever about Raw Meat. Most notably, one can't help but wonder why, if the morlocks managed to dig their way out, they didn't just leave the tunnels and continue with their normal lives. If you're worried about starving, seems Plan A should be "go to the cornershop" and not "stay in these pestilent tunnels preying upon the occasional late-night train rider and hoping nobody notices our murderous ways." Still, much of the illogic of the basic story is mitigated by the tone of the morlock's tale: it shares more to the gothic subterranean exile narratives of things like Phantom of the Opera than it does to the vérité shocks of TCM (though our atavistic tunnel-people are considerably more downmarket than Erik). Furthermore, while Man is never particularly likable in any way - his diseased appearance and communication limited to subhuman vocalizations makes him sufficiently repulsive - one gets a real sense that he's a human facing the end of his world. There's something of the wounded, and therefore both dangerous and pathetic, animal about him.

Raw Meat isn't the off-the-hook monstrosity that the title and central concept might imply. But if you're looking for something a bit slower, a bit softer, and just a bit more thoughtful, then there's some nice things to be found here.

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