Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Night 7: The Midnight Meat Train

Oh man, where do I start?

Every so often on a visit home my parents will hand me a box of random crap from my youth, as if they no longer have sufficient space or interest to be the caretakers of my personal archive and are thereby passing on that responsibility to me. Even though I am now a father myself, I am still not ready to be my own curator. Sole possession of one's past seems to me a risky step away from oblivion.

On top of the latest box was a pile of paperbacks that I hadn't seen in over fifteen years, and thought forever lost. They were Clive Barker's Books of Blood and they had cover illustrations that must have kept my parents up discussing my mental health into the wee hours of the morning.

In the summer before my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to study at Harvard. It was a lesson in abject humiliation, as I had no business being within a ten-block radius of that place, but that is not why I mention it. Here I was, at the most prestigious university in the country, with the opportunity to rub cerebellums with some of the greatest minds in the world, and what course do you think I chose to take? That's right, folks: Horror Fiction. My parents must have been so proud.

The "textbook" for the course was a large hardback anthology edited by David G. Hartwell, called The Dark Descent. I believe it's out of print now, which is a shame, because it's the most comprehensive survey of the genre ever assembled. My copy is literally held together by duct tape and occupies a permanent spot on my nightstand. I just flipped it open a few minutes ago and saw that several titles in the table of contents were underlined--assigned reading for the class. Among them are H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" (see Night 5) and Clive Barker's "Dread." The latter is the first story in the second volume of the Books of Blood and I remember feeling a brief twitch of smug pride having already done my homework for the class several years before.

At one point during the summer, we had a guest instructor come in--a woman by the name of Ellen Datlow who was then fiction editor at Omni magazine. With eight World Fantasy Awards to her name, Ellen Datlow is now one of the most celebrated science fiction and horror editors of all time. By chance, she chose one of my stories to critique that day, and started off by saying the first half was ready for publication. The second half, she said, was utter rubbish and she proceeded to slice and dice it in front of my peers with merciless relish.

One night, several years later, I found myself lying in bed with a gorgeous girl, demonstrating exactly what "spooning" meant to several others also present in the dorm room. I never spoke to the girl again. It was just one of those minor college moments that left a major impression on me.

In 1996, I stumbled upon the nascent sport of Mixed Martial Arts by renting the first Ultimate Fighting Championship on VHS. I spent the next ten years trying to convert and convince friends and family members that, really, my new obsession wasn't barbaric or depraved, but a beautifully simple metaphor for what all other sports have made abstract. At some point, I shifted my attention overseas, to a Japanese fighting organization called Pride, which featured among other rising stars, a charismatic black American by the name of Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.

I share this little series of anecdotes in an attempt to explain why 100,000 people would have to watch Ryuhei Kitamura's Midnight Meat Train before someone else identified with it as strongly as I did. The movie is based on a Barker story of the same name, the second in the first volume of the BoB. The girl in the story above was Leslie Bibb, who left school shortly after our spooning encounter to become a model and, later, an actress. She has appeared in very few films worth seeing (Talladega Nights and Iron Man) and isn't a very good actress, truth be told. But she's hella foxy and she aquits herself admirably as the girlfriend of a man who hopes to break into the world of photography by capturing the underbelly of New York City. The man, played by Bradley Cooper, is granted an audience with an art dealer (Brook Shields) capable of delivering him overnight fame and acclaim. In a scene somewhat analogous to my vivisection by Ellen Datlow, the dealer humbles our hero but also tells him to dig deeper and find her some authentically edgy material.

Meanwhile, beneath the city, an artist of another kind is at work. Butcher by day, butcher by night. Wielding Thor's meat tenderizer and a leather satchel jammed full of other instruments of death, a man named Mahogany (played pitch perfect by Vinnie Jones, better remembered as Bullet Tooth Tony in Snatch) dispatches subway riders with brutal efficiency and then preps their carcasses for consumption by creatures unknown. In one well-contested encounter Mahogany very nearly "meats" his match in the form of.... Rampage Jackson! Shortly thereafter, our two artists collide head on.

The truth is, I would have enjoyed this movie even if it did not contain all these personal syncronicities. How can you not love a film that has not one, but two ejected eyeballs? Kitamura perfectly captures the surrealism and gallow's humor of Barker's early work, and elevates a mediocre script to an instant cult classic.

Scorecard (out of ten skulls):
Scare Factor:

My psychological status:

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