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BOOK VERSUS FILM: Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train

    Happy Halloween …

    As the nights draw in, many of us are more likely to use public transport, but would you want to ride with the Subway Butcher? It’s Halloween, it’s another Book Versus Film, it’s time to board Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train. If there’s a buffet car, best avoid it…

    The Book

    It’s the 1970s, New York City, and a young Liverpudlian playwright is riding the subway. Unfortunately, he falls asleep, waking only at the end of the line, where he is dumped on a deserted platform at midnight. Oh, and did I mention the reports of someone attacking passengers? For most of us, that’s enough to swear off subways for life, but for Clive Barker that experience inspired his first short story.

    Story & Characters

    Leon Kaufman moved to New York around three months ago – a city he had always loved from afar – but that romance has soured. To compound his disappointment, there’s a killer called the Subway Butcher slaughtering people. One night Leon falls asleep on the subway, only to awake alone, thinking he has missed his stop, and wondering why a curtain is blocking his view into the next car. And then he takes a peek …

    Our protagonist is not a happy man. Leon’s accountancy job doesn’t offer much respite either. He works late, supposedly to avoid the distractions of office chatter, but in truth he feels disconnected from others. His life has hit the buffers. By the end of his midnight train ride, however, his sense of purpose will be rekindled in ways he could not imagine.

    By contrast, Mahogany the Subway Butcher is much happier with his lot. He considers the killings a sacred duty. But though he’s been doing the job for over ten years, he’s in his fifties now, and making mistakes. Mahogany feels it’s time to find an apprentice, for the inevitable day when he takes his final journey on the train.

    Bloody Books

    When Clive Barker started writing horror short stories in the early 80s, he published six volumes called the Books of Blood. His take on the genre was full-throttle; not for him the maxim that what you don’t see is scarier. Barker has said he doesn’t do half-measures, and The Midnight Meat Train is brim full. Following a brief tale setting up the premise of the anthologies, Meat Train was placed intentionally as the first story proper. Some would call it a statement of intent. Others, a warning.

    The story jumps frequently between Leon and Mahogany. We get hints at their backstories (Leon came from Atlanta, Mahogany has been married at least twice), and we follow each as their lives take them towards an inevitable collision aboard that train. But whilst Leon is set up as the victim who fights back, the twist comes after he despatches the Butcher: rather than returning to the streets a hero, he instead assumes the role of the killer he’s just vanquished.

    Although unexpected, this makes sense. Mahogany has everything Leon lacks – a sense of purpose, a feeling of self-worth – and by assuming the Butcher’s role, he is finally whole. Leon’s disillusionment is gone, his love for the city he now serves is reaffirmed, and finally he has a place in the world. If some find that ‘happy ending’ a little perverse, well, I suspect the author would take that as a bonus.

    Barker introduces many themes that will recur in his future works: violence, body horror, arcane pacts with unnatural forces, and lashes of lovingly detailed gore. Ramsay Campbell, writing the intro to the first volume, described Meat Train as a ‘Technicolor horror story’. He wasn’t kidding. But whilst people unfamiliar with Barker’s work may assume it’s just an exercise in excess (largely due to his film Hellraiser) the truth is that, like New York City itself, there is much more beneath the surface.

    Which brings us to the subterranean creatures at the journey’s end. A form of humanity, hairless, diseased, and with teeth filed to points, these are the city’s Fathers, and they built not only New York but America itself. The story’s dark secret is revealed: the train’s ‘meat’ is their food.

    Barker’s writing is economical, pacy, with flashes of brilliance to come in his longer works. Two scenes, both on the train, are evocative. The first is when Leon peers through a hole in that curtain: we don’t get to see what he sees – not yet – but we do feel his reaction, his disgust, his horror before he faints.

    Then a few pages later we have Leon escaping through that car, between four naked, bleeding victims suspended from meat hooks, just as the lights go out… Barker said a visit to a slaughterhouse was an important experience for him as a writer, and he shares it with us here. It’s a sensory overload, and easily the best part of the story.

    Release & Reception

    When the first three Books of Blood came out in 1984 they were not instant bestsellers. That changed, however, at the World Fantasy Convention in October, after a panel guest suggested the future of horror might be Clive Barker. That guest was Stephen King. At the time, King hadn’t even read the books but was hearing very good things, and soon discovered the truth for himself. When the American editions came out in 1985, King’s personal endorsement graced the front cover.

    The first three volumes scooped the World Fantasy Award for Collection/Anthology in 1985. The six books are among the genre’s most famous and influential anthologies, and have spawned a few notable adaptations (the most famous being Volume V’s The Forbidden, which became Candyman). But could that opening ‘Technicolor horror story’ also work as a film?

    That answer finally came in 2008 …

    The Film

    In 2003, Clive Barker set about producing several films based on his Books of Blood, hoping to show that horror can work on different levels: psychological, comical, visceral, etc. Like the placing in that first volume, he chose to launch with The Midnight Meat Train.

    Several attempts had already been made. Bernard Rose had wanted to retool it as a sequel to his 1992 Barker adaptation Candyman, and David Campbell Wilson (Supernova) wrote a version called The Red Line, but only towards the end of the 2000s did the train appear ready to leave the station.

    Jeff Buhler wrote the screenplay (his first adaptation), working closely with Barker. He made Leon a photographer – giving the audience visual clues to his mindset – and provided him with a goal: getting that big break from a gallery owner. It’s this need to capture the city’s dark underbelly that brings him into contact with Mahogany.

    Shooting began in 2007. Japanese director Ryûhei Kitamura, fresh from homegrown success with Versus and Alive (based on a manga, not a mountain crash), brought a distinctive visual polish and verve for the film’s heightened violence. Plus, like Buhler, he’d been a Clive Barker fan since reading the Books of Blood as a teenager.

    Cast & Characters

    A year before his star-making turn in The Hangover, Bradley Cooper took on the lead as Leon. The character is not the disenfranchised creature of the short story, but still shows questionable morality (he photographs a potential sexual assault before intervening). Leon’s crisis comes at exactly the midway point: when taking snaps of his girlfriend undressing, he sees instead joints of meat hanging from hooks, and Cooper captures this conflict, as well as Leon’s slow descent, perfectly.

    Leslie Bibb is also superb as Maya Jones, Leon’s girlfriend, and there’s good support too from Brooke Shields as an unscrupulous gallery owner, who in early drafts was to be part of the conspiracy protecting Mahogany, and Barbara Eve Harris as a detective who is in the Butcher’s cabal.

    However, acting honours go to Vinnie Jones, whose menacing presence as Mahogany steals the film, even more impressive considering he only gets to utter one word (the character’s tongue having been ripped out as part of the initiation process). Mahogany’s glowering silence – in contrast to the eloquence of Pinhead and Candyman – marks him out as another terrific Barker antagonist. Leon’s photograph of him, seen at the gallery, is chilling. All those years ago, Gazza was lucky his encounter with Vinnie on the football pitch only resulted in getting his nuts cracked.

    A Longer Train

    When a 25-page story needs fleshing out into a 90-minute movie, there’s plenty of scope for new material. The danger is losing the original text among the new stuff, but the reverence Buhler and Kitamura show for Barker’s text prevents that.  The main addition is Maya, who gets her own storyline, at one point tracking down and breaking into Mahogany’s apartment as she tries to save Leon from the Butcher’s underworld.

    We also spend more time with the Butcher, following him on a typical day at a meat packing plant. His routine when getting ready is informative too: Mahogany has a precision that suggests a military background. But if his past is a mystery, and his present poses many questions – those weird tumours he cuts from his skin imply he’s been infected by what lives beneath the city – then his future is determined the moment he coughs up blood whilst fighting a Guardian Angel. Our Butcher is on a strict timetable, and not just the ones he carries with him, for he needs to find a replacement before he dies.

    Which brings us to the new dynamic between hero and villain. Leon first sees Mahogany rise from the subway on an escalator, almost supernatural in his stillness, impeccably dressed in a 1950s suit (which, like that crisp white shirt, seemingly repels blood!). Their first encounter, minutes later, is a brilliantly understated scene where Leon stalks Mahogany, only to discover the Butcher knows he’s behind him. When Mahogany lets Leon go, it’s clear he has something in mind for our protagonist. The Butcher has chosen his protégé.

    The purpose of the meat train has also been slightly repurposed. The setup is simplified – there is now only one train Mahogany can ride, rather than several as in the short story, or at least there’s only one driver he can ride with (perhaps those timetables Maya steals indicate which train Mahogany’s co-conspirator is on each night) – so the conspiracy surrounding the Butcher is more credible. And at the end of the line, the creatures feeding on our flesh are not human, making those sacrifices a Faustian pact to stop them attacking the city.

    Release & Reception

    Several reviews praised Kitamura’s directing and visual style. The desaturated colours, especially underground, look terrific; and if the eye-popping action (literally) isn’t impressive enough, there’s a scene that stays with a victim’s POV after she gets decapitated and sees her own headless body. Some claimed this to be the best adaptation of Barker’s work, including Clive himself. Barker had hoped to expand the story into a trilogy, with trains and stations throughout America, if this were a success.

    So, why did it fail at the box office?

    The film was due to open in May 2008 across 2000 screens, but got pulled. Despite an online fan campaign to raise awareness, when it finally appeared in August that year it was relegated to 102 secondary market screens (a contractual minimum), and many of those were one-dollar theatres.

    Despite a modest budget of $15m, it barely made a tenth of that. It’s been suggested the film was set up to fail following personnel changes at Lionsgate, making the recent treatment of Batgirl and Scoob!: Holiday Haunt being junked as tax write-offs seem not so unprecedented.

    At least this train got to depart, and has been steadily building a fanbase since, including horror luminaries like Guillermo del Toro. As Clive Barker rightly puts it, the film will be around long after certain producers have left.

    The Verdict

    The short story packs a lot into a very economic page count. It was Barker’s showcase story, and perfectly encapsulates his sublime writing, his brand of horror, his impact upon the genre. A fantastic read, it draws us into a mystery that offers an unexpected twist before a suitably dark end. Nearly 40 years later, it’s still one hell of a debut.

    The film honours the short story whilst embellishing it, taking full advantage of the screen thanks to a director with a real gift for visuals. The new characters help flesh out the two carried over from the original, and Leon is more sympathetic and relatable too. Finally, all the extra material could easily pass as stuff Barker was forced to prune back to fit a page count: none of it feels out of place.

    So, I’m happy to announce the film adaptation of The Midnight Meat Train gets my vote as the best version.

    I hope you enjoyed the ride …

    BIO: Nick Jackson has written several short stories that have appeared in anthologies, and several more Book V Films, that have appeared here. He is currently working on his first radio play. He recently went to New York, but chose not to ride the subway. Blame Clive.

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