Friday, May 08, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

Over the years, movie adaptations of Clive Barker's visionary and disturbing literary works have run the gamut from great (Hellraiser [1987]), to disappointing (Lord of Illusions [1995]) to downright awful (Nightbreed [1990], Rawhead Rex [1986]). The Midnight Meat Train (2008) is the latest translation of Barker's written work, and it falls somewhere...right in the middle of that spectrum.

Some key moments in Ryûhei Kitamu's film are so astonishing -- breathtaking actually -- in their ingenious, imaginative presentation that you may be tempted to forgive the trespasses in narrative clarity and the overt lapses in consistency of tone (lapses caused, specifically, by CGI special effects design...) Other moments, particularly a predictable, hackneyed ending, only serve to diminish the good will the film builds up.

The Midnight Meat Train is the story of Leon (Bradley Cooper), an aspiring photographer who hasn't yet found his true artistic voice. After some terse advice ("stay put, be brave, keep shooting...") from a local gallery owner and art connoisseur, Susan (Brooke Shields), Leon proceeds to nurture his dark side.

Accordingly, he begins going out for night shoots on the gloomy, mean streets of the city. On one occasion, Leon even photographs a violent crime in progress, but rescues the victim. Then, circumstances lead Leon to a strange "butcher" (Vinnie Jones), a man who -- every night -- viciously murders passengers on a lonely train car after 2:00 am. He does so using a big, silver meat tenderizer.

Leon delves deeper into the mystery of the butcher -- who seems to be immortal -- and becomes obsessed with the terror he witnesses, much to the chagrin of his supportive girlfriend, Maya (Leslie Bibb). Soon, Leon and Maya are both reckoning with the butcher, and the slowly-dawning realization that the killer is part of an underground, secret with the full support and assistance of the metropolitan police.

Ultimately, The Midnight Meat Train serves as a literalization of the famous Friedrich Nietzsche quotation, "when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." By seeking out the ugly side of human nature for personal gain (artistic success, money and fame...), Leon gives up, in a very real and permanent sense, his humanity. The dark is not something to be toyed with, and there are consequences for Leon's "stolen" shots of Evil.

In keeping with this Nietzschean motif, Kitamu does an extraordinary job capturing the alienating vibe and heartbeat of a modern city at night. It's a world of fluorescent lights, hellish steam rising from sewers and inscrutable strangers going about their secret business. If you've ever walked a deserted city street late at night, Leon's journey into the urban heart of darkness will resonate with you. There's a rapturous feeling of both freedom and anonymity here; the scintillating possibility that around one corner you could find salvation; around another...damnation. But it's your choice which route to take, and you don't really understand the ramifications of your destination until you get there. The Midnight Meat Train is at its best when it plays off this idea.

After about the one hour point, however, the movie's hypnotic spell starts to crumble a bit, and Leon takes on the perpetual blank stare of a zombie, his true thoughts now as inscrutable and unavailable as those of the speechless butcher. There's a very good reason for this characterization in terms of plot, but the result is a burgeoning sense of distance from the narrative.

As viewers, we find ourselves getting ahead of the story and figuring out where it is headed (even if we don't know how or why...). Genre films thrive on surprises, shocks and twists, and it's never a good thing when you have the time to put all the pieces together in your mind. So The Midnight Meat Train really falters in the last act. Even the discovery of a (hungry) Lovecraftian-style social hierarchy and a frenetic outburst of depraved brutality and violence (culminating with a ripped out tongue...) can't rescue the film from the grinding predictability of the final shots.

Although The Midnight Meat Train deserves praise for some truly amazing and pioneering visuals, even these are hit and miss. There's an early murder set-piece on the train involving Ted Raimi, for instance. The CGI special effects are so terrible, so thoroughly unconvincing that they rip you out of the film's carefully-constructed feeling of dread. One awful shot (of Raimi losing both eyes, in slow motion, in a torrent of digital blood) is so incompetent, so bad, you start to think the movie is designed as a joke, one headed down the path of parody. If featured just quickly, this moment might have worked better, but in full-on slow-motion photography, the moment lingers...and the movie loses you.

Yet -- in the very same scene -- Kitamu stages a decapitation in the most imaginative, dazzling way I've seen. He adopts the perspective of the severed head, and, it's a crazy, terrifying ride. In microcosm, this scene explains everything that is wrong and right with the movie. One moment is terrible; the next is inspired.

I understand that digital effects are "the thing" these days in the horror genre, but in a film so much about meat -- about flesh -- it seems that the "butchering" scenes should feel especially grounded in reality, anchored in the texture of blood, bone and skin. On occasion -- in fairness -- they are. There's a short, disgusting and effective scene (shot in attentive, unblinking close-up) in which the butcher removes the eyeballs, teeth and fingernails of a victim...and you can almost smell the horror of the abattoir.

But the over-reliance on CGI for other critical kill scenes saddles the film with a cartoon-ish feel that runs opposite to the very thematic core of the story. After all, much is made here of the fact that Leon is a vegetarian (he even brings his own tofu to a local grill...), and that the further he delves into the terror of the butcher, the more he is drawn to meat.

The movie's bloody effects should mirror or augment that journey; they should be...gristly and bound to the laws of gravity, not weightless and recognizably computer generated. In one scene, there's so much digital blood spray flying about that it actually distracts you from the action. That's unconscionable in a production that has toiled so hard to create the reality of a rolling, subterranean urban slaughterhouse. I am never one to declare that special effects are the end all and be all of a film, but when special effects are so inappropriately rendered that they actually undercut the very thematic conceit of a film, there's a big problem.

The Midnight Meat Train is promising, if inconsistent. I understand why it has been welcomed with open arms by so many horror critics I respect. There's so much that's good -- and downright dazzling -- here, you hate to see it undone by poorly-conceived effects and a grinding mechanical ending that recalls, more than anything else, The Sentinel (1977). You want to love this film -- the speeding descent into a subterranean, urban hell -- but you end up just kind of feeling numb to it all.

Call me a conflicted passenger. I started out really enjoying this journey, but it ended up being just another commute...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

32 Things Star Trek Taught Me

1. "There are a million things in this universe you can have and a million things you can't have. It's no fun facing that, but that's the way things are." ("Charlie X")

2. "Morals are for men, not Gods." ("Where No Man Has Gone Before")

3. "We all have our darker side. We need it! It's half of what we are. It's not's human." ("The Enemy Within")

4. "The sound of male ego. You travel half way across the galaxy and it's still the same song." ("Mudd's Women")

5. "Worlds may change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman always remains a woman." ("The Conscience of the King")

6. "War is never imperative." ("Balance of Terror")

7. "The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play." ("Shore Leave")

8."Life and death are seldom logical." ("The Galileo Seven")

9. "Madness has no purpose. Or reason. But, it may have a goal." ("The Alternative Factor")

10. "Freedom is never a gift: it has to be earned." ("Return of the Archons")

11."If there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. ("This Side of Paradise")

12. "A lie is a poor way to say hello." ("City on the Edge of Forever")

13. "You may find that having is not nearly so pleasing a thing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true." ("Amok Time")

14. "In every revolution there's one man with a vision." ("Mirror, Mirror")

15. "Vulcans never bluff." ("The Doomsday Machine")

16. "Logic is a little tweeting bird chirping in a meadow. Logic is a wreath of pretty flowers which smell bad..." ("I, Mudd")

17. "The idea of male and female are universal constants..." ("Metamorphosis")

18. "There's an old, old saying on earth, Mr. Sulu: "Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." ("Friday's Child")

19. "Everyone feeds on death, even vegetarians." ("Wolf in the Fold")

20. "Too much of anything -- even love -- is not necessarily a good thing." ("The Trouble with Tribbles"")

21. "They used to say if mankind could fly, he'd have wings, but he did fly. He discovered he had to." ("Return to Tomorrow")

22. "Without followers, evil cannot spread." ("And the Children Shall Lead")

23. "Physical reality is consistent with universal laws. When the laws do not operate, there is no reality." ("Spectre of the Gun")

24. "Only a fool fights in a burning house." ("Day of the Dove")

25. "The release of emotion is what keeps us healthy. Emotionally healthy." ("Plato's Stepchildren")

26. "We must acknowledge – once and for all – that the purpose of diplomacy is to prolong a crisis." ("Mark of Gideon")

27. "Herbert was a minor official, notorious for his rigid and limited patterns of thought." ("The Way to Eden")

28. "We all create God in our own image." ("The Motion Picture")

29. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one." ("The Wrath of Khan")

30. "The needs of the one... outweigh the needs of the many." ("The Search for Spock")

31. "Maybe he's [God] not out there, Bones. Maybe he's right here. The human heart." ("The Final Frontier")

32. "Logic is the beginning of wisdom...not the end." ("The Undiscovered Country")

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"This ship and her history will shortly become the care of another crew. To them and their posterity will we commit our future. They will continue the voyages we have begun, and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man... where no one has gone before."

-Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner)
passes the torch, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Monday, May 04, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #73: Space:1999: "Dragon's Domain" (1975)

In my "Space Vampire" post from Sunday, I noted how that 1980 episode of Buck Rogers featuring a "Vorvon" was likely one of the scariest things I saw on prime-time TV in my youth.

Well, I ruminated on that thought for a while after re-reading the post and realized there was at least one other notable contender for that particular title: the eerie episode of Space:1999 (1975-1977) entitled "Dragon's Domain." So today, I wanted to highlight here on the blog that other memorable (and scarring...) space "horror" from my childhood.

In so many ways, this remarkable episode of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson sci-fi spectacular (written by Christopher Penfold) is a direct precursor to 1979's Alien (and some shots even foreshadow the opening moments of Aliens [1986] with the Narcissus shuttle). The important thing, however, is that the installment remains incredibly horrific even today. I guarantee you, if you watch it in the dark you'll be creeped out.

Although "Dragon's Domain" was the penultimate episode produced for Space:1999's Year One, by some quirk of syndication, my local station -- WPIX in New York -- actually aired it as the second episode of twenty-four. In some senses that's how I'll always remember it: I tuned in to Space:1999 the second time it was ever broadcast in my area and got the shit scared out of me. I was five years old.

"Dragon's Domain" is an episode recounted by Moonbase Alpha's chief medical officer, Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain). She reports in voice-over narration (a storytelling device that would become a regular feature in Year Two...) that her tale occurs on the errant moon's "877th" day wandering in deep space, when the lost natural satellite is "between galaxies" and "three months eagle's flight time from the nearest solar system." It was during this span that one astronaut, Tony Cellini (Gianno Garko) began to feel convinced that "he was closing for a second time" on his "mortal enemy."

In flashbacks, the episode further reveals the details of Tony's first encounter with this unusual nemesis. In years past, he led a (doomed...) space mission to a newly discovered planet named Ultra, on the fringes of the solar system. Upon nearing the planet, Tony and his crew pinpointed several unexpected metallic contacts at one orbital reference point. These turned out to be ancient but highly advanced derelict and alien spaceships trapped in a cosmic graveyard. After docking with one vessel, Tony and his crew opened an airlock and encountered a flurry of "wind, noise," and "light."

Then something much, much worse appeared aboard their vessel: a cyclopean, tentacled alien creature; one which didn't register at all on their instruments. This monstrous, screeching thing materialized on the Ultra Probe and killed Tony's three crew members, first by hypnotizing them and then by dragging them into its grotesque, orange-hued gullet and rapidly devouring them. After eating the astronauts alive, the monster then quickly regurgitated their steaming, dessicated skeletons. This macabre image -- of steaming, skeletal astronaut corpses sliding across a pristine spaceship floor -- is one that I have never in all my years forgotten.

Back in the present, Tony is convinced the monster of Ultra is again nearby, and when that Sargasso Sea in Space re-appears, he steals an Eagle to face the dragon. Koenig pursues Cellini, but Tony suffers the same gruesome fate as his shipmates. Koenig ends the nightmare by planting a hatchet in the alien's glowing white eye. The thing just fades away to nothingness, the light in its eye dimming ever so slowly. Afterwards, a stunned Helena remains concerned: "According to our criteria, it was never really alive," she notes in her voice-over, " how could we be sure it was dead?"

On a recent re-watching of this episode, I found that "Dragon's Domain" holds up remarkable well. My friend, the late Johnny Byrne served as script consultant for Year One and once told me that viewers should consider Space:1999 not in terms of a tale necessarily concerning the technological future (like for example, Star Trek), but rather as an ancient "origin myth" for a displaced people, the Alphans, replete with inexplicable happenings, divine intervention, and strange lore. You can clearly detect that conceit playing out in "Dragon's Domain."

In the episode's coda, for instance, Helena notes that if the Alphans are to find a new home on another world, they'll require a "new mythology," and that the story of Tony Cellini and the monster will ultimately become part of that foundation. Helena furthermore compares the events of "Dragon's Domain" explicitly to the mythological (and religious) story of St. George and the Dragon.

Given this leitmotif, much of "Dragon's Domain" involves disparate elements found in our collective mythology and literature. Tony Cellini is the man obsessed with a monster, not entirely unlike Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851). Like Ahab, Cellini has faced the monster before, been injured by it, and is itching to face it again. The second encounter -- also like Ahab's final encounter with the white whale -- is one that neither character survives.

Cellini's long battle for survival on the command module of the Ultra Probe after escaping his original battle with the monster, also seems reflective of Moby Dick, in an Ishmael-ish "And I alone survived to tell thee..." sort of way. There are resonances of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea here as well, with the "monster" serving the same function as the giant squid in that classic. In both cases, heroes battle the tentacled beast with a hatchet. Why, there's even a little touch of Robinson Crusoe (1719) here, in Cellini's long, lonely trip home (to Earth)!

The creature itself could be a beast straight out of H.P. Lovecraft by way of Homer's The Odyssey (which also featured a cyclops...). The monster of "Dragon's Domain" is a mysterious, hideous thing, an ancient killer -- an Old One -- that ensnares aliens of all races in a trap that resembles a "spider's web" (in Victor Bergman's words). It can't be quantified by our science, and it seems to breach our reality by transporting in and out of it by will. The creepy thing about it is indeed the very thing upon which Helena hinges in the finale: we don't know where it originated, what it is, or anything about it's life-cycle...

Watching "Dragon's Domain" this time, around with Johnny's description of the series as a futuristic "origin tale" and Penfold's idea of a "new mythology" in mind, I detected how the episode stresses the classical nature of its hero, Cellini. He is described in the teleplay as a "poet," "a renaissance man" and an "all-rounder" at various points, and his quarters on Alpha are a testament to Cellini's appreciation of the past and man's heroic endeavors. He keeps ceremonial axes on his walls, for example, along with an artistic illustration of an elephant herd on a grassy plain.

These images create the impression of a man who is a throwback in the antiseptic world imagined by Space:1999, but also an authentic hero, the equivalent of a modern knight (an astronaut) who could conceivably slay a dragon. I love the final image of the episode's teaser: an ancient ceremonial tomahawk blade buried deep in the controls of one of Alpha's ubiquitous comm-posts. This is a purposeful conjunction of the more "colorful" (literary and mythic) past with the futuristic, minimalist, ultra-realistic world of the moon base.

The battle between the real and the mythic repeats again and again in this episode. Commissioner Dixon, Cellini's superior on Earth, is grounded in the former, lamenting the failure of the Ultra Probe mission. "The reality of space adventuring is that it's terribly expensive," he says, deciding to cast blame on Tony to avoid a PR disaster.

By contrast, Cellini argues the side of belief, of lore. "I want all of you to throw out the criteria by which you judge what's real. You have to abandon reason. You must believe that I...have stood face-to-face with the dragon." As man goes into space, the episode seems to tell us, we must be prepared to open our mind to extreme possibilities, to crib a phrase from The X-Files. Here -- in space...there be dragons.

If you remember the specifics of the story of St. George and the Dragon, St. George saved an imperiled town from the monster, but in doing so, made the citizens promise to convert to Christianity (which they ultimately did). In "Dragon's Domain," Cellini also makes "true believers" or converts out of the skeptical Helena, uncertain Victor and Koenig himself. No, he doesn't make them explicitly Christians...but he makes them all believe in "belief" itself, in a world of monsters and dragons and myth. That's the subject of Koenig and Helena's final dialogue.

I remember reading The New York Times review of "Dragon's Domain" and Space:1999. The paper's TV critic, John Leonard. wrote the following: "It [1999] has what no other TV science-fiction program except Star Trek had - good stories and good special effects. The test of good science fiction is its ability to imagine alien life...A recent Space:1999 ["Dragon's Domain"] not only presented a persuasive alien-like form, but played with it lightly...Nice stuff."

Nice stuff? Or the very stuff nightmares are made of, in this case.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 72: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Space Vampire" (1980)

When I was eleven years old, the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) episode about a monster called a "Vorvon," was probably the scariest thing I had yet seen on network television.

That episode, titled simply "Space Vampire," aired on January 3, 1980 on NBC, and the Kathleen Barnes and David Wise teleplay concerned Captain Buck Rogers' (Gil Gerard) chilling encounter on Theta Space Station with a cosmic Nosferatu or Un-Dead, a soul stealer known as a "Vorvon."

Although Buck Rogers might rightly be accused of exploiting the popularity of Dracula in the pop culture in 1979 -- a year which saw the release of John Badham's Dracula, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu and even Love at First Bite -- the "Space Vampire" episode of the first season nonetheless remains one of the series highlights: unnervingly creepy, uncharacteristically somber, and wholly dread-filled. This is true even if by adult standards we today judge the program to border on camp.

However, I watched the episode again recently with a friend's ten year old son and it thoroughly freaked him out. So there's definitely something frightening there; at least to impressionable young minds.

In "Space Vampire" a "space age vampire stalks a lonely space station," according to the teaser, and that summary pretty much nails the whole story. Buck and Wilma drop off Twiki for repairs at Theta Station but instead of getting away for their vacation on Genesia, they witness a starship (the Gemonese Freighter from Battlestar Galactica actually...) plunge through Stargate Nine and collide with the station.

The inner atmosphere of Theta is contaminated, and the logs of the derelict -- the I.S. Demeter -- suggest the crew and passengers were suffering from hallucinations and "mental deterioration" brought on by the Denebian virus EL7.

After the station's Dr Ecbar (Lincoln Kilpatrick) reveals to Buck that the crew of Demeter is not dead, but rather drained of "spirit," Buck suspects a being, not a disease, is the culprit.

He's right: The evil Vorvon (Nicholas Hormann) creates undead minions out of the station crew (who appear replete with two discolorations on their neck...). He then prepares to make the uncharacteristically terrified Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) his immortal bride.

One aspect of "Space Vampire" I rather enjoy is the deliberate homage to the epistolary nature of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. As you'll recall, the literary Dracula was crafted in the form of various collected letters and communiques. The whole story was conjured through the filter of newspaper clippings, Mina's Diary, Seward's phonograph recordings, and Jonathan Harker's journal.

For all its disco-decade glitz, cheap sets and callow characterization, Buck Rogers actually pinpoints a decent "space age" corollary to Stoker's literary approach, permitting the stalwart Buck to assemble the story (and history) of the Vorvon from various 25th century media sources, though all visual in nature: the captain's log from the Demeter, the servo drone recordings of a Demeter passenger (and bounty hunter) from "New London" named Helson (Van Helsing), and even helpful communiques from Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis on Earth.

The other parallels to Dracula are much more obvious. The only thing to ward off the Vorvon is called an "ancient power lock," the "25th century equivalent of a cross," in Buck's own words.

What's funny (and silly...) about this "ancient power lock" is that it is really just Commander Adama's collar medallion from Battlestar Galactica. And ironically, Adama was played by Lorne Greene, a man who had recently portrayed Dracula himself in an episode of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries in 1977! Yep, it's Six Degrees of Dracula...

The Vorvon can also mesmerize his victims and change forms at will, another recognizable trait. Just as Dracula could turn to mist, wolf, bat or other form, the Vorvon here often takes the shape of a red, pulsating energy blob that hovers overhead. This non-corporeal form gives the makers of the episode license to provide some examples of crimson-hued, P.O.V. shots. Call it "Vorvon Vision," all rendered from dramatic and doom-laden high-angles as Wilma is stalked by the Monster.

Obviously, the name of the derelict ship, the Demeter, itself originates from Stoker's novel and serves the same purpose in both texts: carrying the "disease" (Dracula or Vorvon) to civilization.

Even the uni-browed, long-fingered physical appearance of the Vorvon is similar to Stoker's written description of the vampire.

From almost a cinema of vampire cinema, the episode appropriates the idea that the Vorvon cannot survive in sunlight, and in an interesting final twist, Buck destroys the soul sucker by flying it into a star itself.

There are actually some pretty solid horror compositions in this episode my surprise. A slow pan marks the Vorvon's first appearance as a humanoid. We pan across the Theta Station Lounge (where an arcade video game unit, circa 1979 is plainly visible...) and see Buck ordering drinks at the bar. When the camera pans back (all in one shot), the Vorvon is suddenly seated at a previously empty table...staring at Wilma with malevolent eyes.

There's also a great shot (pictured above), in which the undead Dr. Ecbar is struck down and collapses directly in front of a flashlight, his ghoulish pallor suddenly illuminated in the relative darkness. Together, a few clever compositions like these examples economically enhance Wilma's stated fear of "death as a tangible presence."

And finally, you haven't truly lived until you've seen Erin Gray -- in a skin-tight spandex cat-suit -- playing the soulless, avaricious, seductive bride of the Vorvon. But seriously, what makes "Space Vampire" resonate, I think, is Wilma's pervasive fear of the Vorvon, and the fact that nobody seems to believe that it is hunting her. Wilma just knows she can't escape it...and she almost doesn't. There's a feeling of powerless here; and a sweeping inevitability in the narrative. It may not be Shakespeare -- or Stoker -- but it works.

"Space Vampire" may not be the best episode of Buck Rogers (I'm rather fond of the two-parter called "The Plot to Kill a City"), but it is certainly the single installment that most people of my generation seem to remember most fondly.

Yep, it definitely made an impression
. For me, this 1980 Buck Rogers episode played a crucial role in my youthful education. It was shortly after seeing "Space Vampire" that I sought out Bram Stoker's novel and read it (with shivers...) for the very first time; not to mention the time period in which I first discovered the Marvel Dracula comic, Tomb of Dracula...