Sunday, April 19, 2009

Movies: Gives new meaning to "Midnight Meat Train."

When I went to college, something like a trillion years ago, there was a stylish lit crit term being bandied about the hallowed halls of the academy: "Closeted text." I've not had much reason to keep up with the cutting edge of queer theory (if, indeed, it's still called that), so I have no idea if this term is still in use. Back in the day, when we still fought against the wily machinations of Tammany Hall and regularly fell victim to Yellow Jack fever, the term was used to describe a text that contained two separate and fully functional levels of meaning. On the surface was the "straight" story. Underneath was an allegory of homosexuality. The cleverness of the closeted text is that each layer of meaning was simultaneously functional. You didn't need to grok the queer subtext to puzzle together the straight meaning of the work. Rather, like the Victorian homosexual demimonde that pioneered the form, the queer meaning ran parallel to the straight text, open to those hip to the signs and clues, but otherwise unassuming. Perhaps the most well-known and successful of closeted texts would be Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. At once a classic Faust tale with Gothic overtones and an elaborate metaphor for being a homosexual in Victorian England, this book's continued popularity in American high school English courses is a testament to both the narrowness of the instruction provided the average American student and the unobtrusiveness of the novel's gay themes for those with no need to seek them.

I bring up this possibly antiquated critical term because today's movie, the 2008 Ryuhei Kitamura helmed Clive Barker adaptation The Midnight Meat Train, seems to me to be a closeted text.

First, let's dispense with the straight story. I should admit here that I can't speak to the fidelity of Kitamura's adaptation. I read the short story a long time ago and, embarrassingly enough, actually remember it more for being the inspiration for a module for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing that appeared in the pages of White Wolf magazine. (A module I then re-purposed for the Shadowrun role-playing game because, dorky as the original was, it apparently just wasn't dorky enough for me.) Now that I've spent all my street cred . . . The movie opens with a photographer, let's call him Dorian. That's not his name, but humor me. He lives with a blonde, available hottie named Sibyl. Again, not the name, but if the shoe fits.

Dorian wants to be a big time photog, but he can't seem to make it work. A studio head tells him that he needs to gritty his work up, so he ends up snapping photos of a potential subway rape, a crime that his presence on the scene foils. However, his intervention leads him down the rabbit hole of a deeper mystery.

Apparently, the powers that be in his city have been using the subway system to send sacrifices down to a clan of subterranean mole people (who have been around for centuries – a cannibalistic diet is good for you). Key to this operation is a gigantic and strangely melancholy gent by the name of Mahogany. Every night, he rides the trains, dispatching meals for the deep ones.

Dorian's effort to stop this conspiracy forms the bulk of the film.

I can actually see why, despite the very public protestations of Clive Barker, the studios hesitated to release Meat Train. It has a very slow wind-up and, and after starting like a typical slasher, it makes a turn for the Lovecraftian. Personally, this shift pleases me. I can't think of anything more dreary than another autopsy of the slasher genre: the hair metal of the horror world. But bait and switch games are always tricky propositions and the addition of supernatural elements in this flick often pushes the film into self-parody.

Some of the blame for this unintentionally comic tone must be assigned to the CGI effects. Kitamura relies heavily on computer effects and the results are often cartoonish, as if somebody was mocking the modern tendency towards ever mounting levels gore. What is supposed to be shocking is, instead, puzzling. One wonders if the film was meant to shock, scare aware non-gorehounds, or simply induce laughter.

That said, aside from the tone issues, Meat Train is a visually arresting film with a couple of fine performances at the core. While I wasn't particularly taken with Bradley Cooper's Dorian, Vinnie Jones and Leslie Bibb (as the killer and love interest, respectively) turn in fine performances. Roger Bart, the reluctant client in Hostel II does a nice job as well. I'm also a fan of the surreal sense the flick gives one of a darker, more sinister reality under the mundane world one knows. Good stuff, well handled.

There. Now you can sell that stuff to the tourists.

Here's the other story behind The Midnight Meat Train:

Dorian has a wonder girl, but for some reason he can't commit. This sexual incompatibility extends to him buying a committed-to-be-engaged ring. His excuse: His photography hasn't taken off and he can't afford to marry her. (Girls, don't by this excuse. Poor people get married all the time. It's how we make more poor people.)

After being told to get grittier photos, Dorian begins sneaking out at night. He ends up taking photos of Mahogany, a strangely compelling man who ushers him, only somewhat unwillingly, into another realm of existence. Dorian researches the world of Mahogany and finds that there's a long, secret history there. There's been a secret, parallel history to the world he knows.

Dorian's not-a-wife suggest that he morbidly obsessed and tells Dorian to "shoot what makes you happy." He claims that she's what makes him happy; but when she starts to strip for some boudoir pics, all Dorian can think about is Mahogany and his world of tunnels and trains. This is part of a string of unappealing depictions of heterosexual sex. After a generic, giggly scene at the start of the flick, we get near rape, a backdoor bang on the counter of a greasy spoon that seems a hair's breadth away from being non-consensual, and this phoitus interruptus scene.

As he gets more obsessed with Mahogany, Dorian, a tofu-lovin' vegetarian, develops this deep inner desire to eat meat. I'm going no further with that particular thread.

Intentional or not, this might be the greatest closeted horror flick since Scream.


wiec? said...

while i thought Vinnie Jones did a good job the rest of this movie was pretty poor i thought. as far as the closeted vibes you got from the flick ... i must have been too distracted by the overly fake CGI blood to pick them up .

you want to revisit a closeted classic check out Nightmare on Elm Street 2. a shower scene creepier than a 100 psychos.

Sean T. Collins said...

Given where Clive Barker was at personally when he wrote "The Midnight Meat Train" and all the rest of the Books of Blood stories, I think this is a pretty safe assumption.

Shon Richards said...

I loved this movie. The closed text was one of my favorite parts. I felt it was clear without hitting you over the head with it.

My other favorite part was just the sheer lack of joy from the killer. Instead of manic laughter or inhuman drive, this guy came across as someone with the worse job in the world but he makes the best of it through some sense of personal pride. He was a blue collar monster. It was an odd kind of sympathy that I rarely see in movies.

CRwM said...


We need some other term for Nightmare which seems like it makes only the flimsiest pretense of being a closeted text. "Bearded flick"? That doesn't sound right.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Shon,

I'm glad somebody else spotted the closeted text as well. Always nice to get a little confirmation.

Excellent observations about Mahogany. I like the fact that, along with the workingman vibe, he also was a killer who was fully aware that his time was up. We catch him not at the height of his powers – though he's still insanely powerful – but in his decline, with his bosses ready to replace him, with his skills dulled. It's a nice touch.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Mr. Collins,

I couldn't say whether the closeted elements of the film are an echo of the original story or a new addition. I don't remember the original well enough. Baker makes a comment in the featurette that explicitly connects his films, books, and paintings to his sexuality, but in a curious way. He says (and this is from memory, so forgive any inaccuracies), "Being a gay man, I won't have any children. These are my children."

spacejack said...

Well I can't say I've ever found the "closeted" aspect of a movie all that interesting, but I very much liked the cinematography in this film.

My problem with it is the pacing seemed off - I think it would've been a far better film if the cartoonishly gory opening scene were omitted (granted it would've made it an even slower buildup.)

But I think it would've been a lot more tense to slowly reveal what was going on. Despite all the gore, I thought one of the scariest scenes was the one where he followed the butcher that first time and almost ran into him when he suddenly stopped in the street.

It seemed like the producers insisted on adding some shock scenes early on to keep the gorehounds happy, and I think it destroyed a lot of the tension and mystery.

As for the "mole people"... that just seemed goofy. A serial-killer duo involving the conducter and the butcher would've made for a tighter film I think.

zoe said...

thanks, reading this really started my day off right. i haven't seen the movie, but i love the way you write. big, loud laughs that keep the curious at bay.

Edward said...

You should check out Kitamura's latest film, No One Lives!