Slashbacks: The Midnight Meat Train/Splice

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-03-31 04:26
Welcome to Slashbacks, a new (semi) regular column commemorating 10 years of OTH. For this monthís edition, I revisited two films that didnít exactly grab me the first time around...

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

In the nine years since I first watched The Midnight Meat Train, Iíd forgotten the ordeal surrounding its release. A vague air of disappointment has always clouded around it, but now I recall itís because I was genuinely excited for it. For over a year, this was a film that lingered in my mind: not only was it a new Clive Barker adaptation from the director of Versus, but it also had a killer trailer that played in front of Rambo way back in 2008. It occurs to me now that I was anticipating this film before this site was even live, so imagine my disappointment when Lionsgate dumped it into a handful of dollar theaters with little fanfare. Then, imagine my further disappointment when I finally caught up with it on Blu-ray the following February, only to discover that I didnít care for it very much.

After months of watching so many fellow horror fans flip for it, I felt like I was left out of the party, unable to share that enthusiasm. Itís always a bummer when this happens, but it also makes it easier to look forward to an eventual revisit since itís very possible that something was just off with me on that particular day (and let me tell you, that would have been entirely possible in February 2009ónot to get too personal, but I was having a rough time adjusting to life as a first- year teacher, an experience that had me questioning my path in life. Long story short, it got better!).

Anyway, nearly a decade later, Iím not really any more enamored with The Midnight Meat Train. While the expectations were certainly dialed down this time out, Iím left with the same cold, hollow feeling that this is a film that should be much more memorable than it is. Donít get me wrongóit certainly has its moments, as films featuring Vinnie Jones bludgeoning victims to death on a subway train are wont to have. Without question, the gore is spectacular (if not sometimes overly-embellished with unsightly CGI), but these violent outbursts are just about the only aspect of Meat Train that really leaves a mark. Director Ryuhei Kitamura clearly invested in capturing Barkerís grand guignol sensibilities with slaughtering that borders on ornate: eyes are hammered right out of a victimís head, while another unsuspecting passenger loses their cranium entirely (with the decapitation being realized via a wicked POV shot).

Unfortunately, these bursts of inspiration are largely snuffed out by the filmís otherwise dull, ponderous approach. To Kitamuraís credit, heís rightfully attempting to soak the proceedings in a sort of suffocating dread atmosphere, all while attempting to add depth to Barkerís original short story. Specifically, he and screenwriter Jeff Buhler are charged with deepening the characters surrounding the mayhem. Where Barkerís story leans on internal monologues to paint Leon Kaufman (Bradley Cooper) as a workaholic office drone transplanted to New York City, the film imagines him as a photographer looking to capture the cityís soul. In doing so, he stumbles upon a rash of bizarre disappearances involving a butcher named Mahogany (Jones), whose connection with a meat packing plant stretches back for decades. Where his short story counterpart has one chance encounter with Mahogany, this Leon is sent down a prolonged rabbit hole in an effort to solve this mystery, effectively twisting Midnight Meat Train into another tale of destructive obsession.

Itís quite noble (and even fitting, given Barkerís sensibilities), but it never quite gains traction. Despite boasting a terrific cast, the story unfolds with little urgency: this was just a few years before Cooperís breakout as a Hollywood star, and while you can sometimes see a glimmer of that leading man charm here, he has little chemistry with co-star Leslie Bibb. Considering so much of the film hinges on this relationship, itís unfortunate that it all falls flat, even if it is nice to see an effort at investing in these character dynamics. Whatís less laudable is how Mahogany himselfóa rich, textured character in Barkerís novel, whose interiority is also realized through extensive monologuesóis reduced to a one-note brute in the movie. Some scenes hint at the butcherís existence beyond his status as a blunt force instrument, but thatís largely his legacy here: the character you canít wait to see because you know someoneís brains are about to be splattered on-screen.

In most movies, thatís fine; however, you expect a little more from a Clive Barker adaptation, especially one sourced from a short story that eventually treads into Lovecraftian implications. Thereís an air of an almost majestic, inexplicable terror thatís briefly captured during the last few minutes of this adaptation, and while this burst of audacity and weirdness is appreciated, itís not enough to salvage an otherwise underwhelming production of a story that deserves better.

Splice (2009)

Speaking of deserving better: letís pour one out for Splice, a genuinely insane film that was inexplicably released by a major studio (respect to Warner Brothers) right in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, where it was largely dismissedóincluding by yours truly. Donít get me wrong: in my original review, I definitely appreciated how bold and bizarre its twists and turns are, but I was apparently lukewarm on the rest, writing it off as yet another cautionary tale about mad science gone horribly wrong. You know, the same old Frankenstein shit again, somehow ignoring (or undervaluing, I guess) that very few such tales go totally buck wild like this one. But this is one of the main reasons I devised Slashbacks: as a chance to revisit and hopefully repent, and I am happy to report that I am firmly amongst the throng that has been worshipping at the altar of Splice for nearly a decade now.

Whether I was just in a foul mood that day or simply unprepared for where Vincenzo Natali was about to take me, I canít say for sure. It seems entirely possible that I was just being a dumbass stick in the mud, unwilling to revel in the utter schlock while also ignoring the decent thematic underpinning. In short: I was way off on this one, as this revisit revealed Splice to be a strikingly photographed, impeccably performed, and deliriously unhinged rendition of this sci-fi staple. Upon further contemplation, itís a rather faithful update of Mary Shelleyís original story, at least in the sense that itís about the self-destructiveness of obsession, here realized by both Clive and Elsa (heh), a pair of lovers whose pioneering work in genetic engineering eventually leads them to create an animal-human hybrid in secret, far away from the disapproving eyes of the corporation that simply wants the duo to create disease-curing proteins.

Clive and Elsa are successful beyond their wildest dreams: not only is their new species viable, but itís also preternaturally smart and extremely resilient, seemingly unable to die even when Clive recognizes it (well, her, as they come to refer to the feminine creature as Dren) as an abomination and tries to drown it. As such, the two must reckon with their creation, essentially forced to raise it as a child, only to fail spectacularly. Itís in this respect that Splice captures the essence of Frankenstein, too, as that novel is nothing if not a parable about the horrors of bad parenting. Victor Frankenstein is a deadbeat dad, totally oblivious to the terrible existence he inflicts upon his creation, with whom he spends years locked in a cycle of destructive revenge. To their credit, Clive and Elsa arenít that bad: theyíre at least well-meaning, if not also oblivious to how tormented their ďdaughterĒ is.

For whatever reasonóprobably on account of now being a parentóthis aspect of Splice felt much more potent this time around. Take it from me: those uninitiated into parenthood can never quite know the constant, dull ache of angst that dwells in your heart. Itís not necessarily worry over your childís safety but rather this constant feeling of dread that you might fuck it all up, an anxiety that Natali and company prey upon throughout Splice. Despite her reluctance to have a (conventional) child with Clive, Elsa is quick to nurture Dren, prompting the audience to perhaps assume some kind of maternal instinct has kicked in.

Reality is bleaker, though, as Elsaís gradually-unveiled ulterior motives reveal a woman haunted by both a traumatic childhood and possibly damaged genes. As her relationship with Dren grows more twisted and contentious, it becomes clear that Elsa is somehow compensating for that childhood and passing it down all at once, much to Cliveís flailing, desperate horror. Unable to cope with the hell theyíve fashioned for themselves, Clive and Elsa resort to taking their frustrations out on each other, meaning the poor creature is burdened with two awful parents instead of one. I couldnít help but appreciate both Sarah Polley and Adrien Brodyís turns here, especially since the former has barely acted since Splice, while the latter mostly appears in junk beneath his talents. Truly a case of not appreciating their craft, I more or less glossed over these two back in 2009, all but ignoring how their performances give the film some actual stakes. You squirm as these two grow increasingly passive-aggressive towards each other, both of them woefully unprepared for the responsibility theyíve foisted upon themselves.

The stretch where they attempt to raise Dren in secret is also genuinely tense and uncomfortable because you know itís going south; what you donít know is just how far south itís going. And to be fair, I doubt many were prepared for Nataliís insistence on descending to some of the most depraved depths imaginable for Spliceís conclusion. Saying it goes off the rails is an understatement: itís more like this deranged story picks up so much speed that it melts the rails right out of insistence, allowing Natali to indulge any and all wild impulses that crossed his mind, no matter how perverse and, yes, darkly hilarious they might be.

You find yourself squirming for an entirely different reason here, particularly once Clive and Dren have their now infamous tryst, which his disturbing on about a half-dozen different levels. Looking back, it clearly threw me for a loop, mostly because I just didnít buy the attraction, especially since Clive is something of a voice of reason up until this point. Now, I realize Clive isnít reasonable at all, nor is it about attraction; rather, itís about power and dominance, as Dren becomes another sort of conquest. Not content to create life where life didnít exist before, Clive suddenly desires to fuck where no man has fucked before, consequences be damned. Splice becomes terrific train-wreck theater right around the point Dren mounts Clive and sprouts wings in the middle of her orgasm, coaxing a sort of nervous laughter from a gawking audience who just knows Elsa is about to stumble upon this screwy scene at any moment.

In doing so, she practically lights the fuse for a climax that grows more disturbing at every turn. Natali empties the clip, rifling through one icky transgression after another, leaving viewers dazed by this feverish, dizzying downward spiral. Whatever the film had to say (or, more actually, whatever it was parroting from Shelley) is a secondary concernóif not tossed out altogether, sacrificed at the altar of glorious trash cinema. Obviously, thatís more than okay: Splice might be paying lip service to well-worn adages about manís destructive nature, but itís willing to plunge completely into the darkest corners of those depths. Sometimes, it plummets so deeply that it feels unrepentantly awful, practically inviting the audience's repulsion and befuddlement. Such provocation isn't often conducive to second chances, but Splice perhaps deserves another look if, like me, you were put off by Natali's absurd impulses. Consider it a dark B-side to Guillermo del Toro's (who actually produced Spliceógo figure!) The Shape of Waterówhere that film imagines an affecting romance between man and monster, this one reminds us that screwing around with the unnatural brings disturbing consequences.

Stay tuned throughout the year as Slashbacks revisits more titles reviewed during OTHís first 10 years.
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