Sometimes the sizzle is better than the steak, and sometimes the drama swirling around a film's release is a lot more interesting than the film itself. Case in point: this week's release of "The Midnight Meat Train," an R-rated horror movie based on a short story by Clive Barker, the acclaimed horror writer who wrote and directed the now-classic horror flick "Hellraiser," which like "The Midnight Meat Train" was based on a short story in his 1984 collection, "Books of Blood."
"The Midnight Meat Train" stars Bradley Cooper as Leon, a photographer who wants to be represented by a hip art dealer named Susan (a strangely angular Brooke Shields). She encourages him to put himself in dangerous situations to better photograph The Truth. So off Leon toddles to the subway where he meets The Truth in the form of a serial killer known only as Mahogany (Vinnie Jones). A professional butcher, Mahogany bashes in the skulls of solo subway riders with an enormous mallet on late-night trains, then hangs them from portable meat hooks and carves them up.
As Leon becomes increasingly obsessed with catching the butcher in the act, he begins to freak out his girlfriend, Maya (Leslie Bibb), who counters by tearing off her top in a vain effort to get him to photograph "things that make you happy."
But Leon turns out not to be a breast man and continues his nocturnal quest to photograph The Truth. Those who loathe the MTA will leap up and scream, "I told you so" when it turns out that the butchery is sanctioned by a cabal of city agencies for barely explained reasons that are abruptly divulged at the last minute. Gorehounds will be delighted with some of the sick set pieces from director Ryuhei Kitamura, one of Japan's flashiest filmmakers, but everyone else will be scratching their heads over this bloody muddle.
That's exactly what the film's distributors did when they saw it. Indeed, the behind-the-scenes story of how "The Midnight Meat Train" came to be is a better story than anything on offer in its script, because the distributor in question is Lionsgate ó the company that just landed a $340 million credit line that it hopes to use to take over the entertainment world. Having begun life as a small, Canadian production company in the late 1970s, Lionsgate grew into a major player in the 1990s and 2000s by producing and distributing films that were considered too edgy for the big studios, such as Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and Mary Harron's "American Psycho." But the company's bread and butter turned out to be lucrative horror films such as the "Saw" franchise, "The Grudge," and "Hostel." The longtime president of acquisitions at Lionsgate, Peter Block, was responsible for this programming, and he originally gave "The Midnight Meat Train" the green light.
Thanks, however, to its new money and mission, Lionsgate has, in recent years, been moving in a decidedly mainstream direction, producing such feel-good fare as the Jackie Chan/Jet Li vehicle "The Forbidden Kingdom" and the Tyler Perry films, including "Madea's Family Reunion" and "Diary of a Mad Black Woman."
When, late last year, Joe Drake came on board and assumed Mr. Block's responsibilities, the first thing he did, in time-honored Hollywood fashion, was throw his predecessor's remaining projects under the bus. First he moved around the release date for "The Midnight Meat Train"; then he announced that the film would only arrive on 100 screens before a quick video release.
Mr. Barker took subsequently to his Web site and wrote, "There have been signs for a long while that Lionsgate, the company releasing the movie, was going to screw around with it," before encouraging fans to contact Mr. Drake directly. Horror fans, who don't get much respect anyway, are feeling particularly persecuted these days as R-rated horror films regularly bomb at the box office and lightweight, PG-13-rated horror movies for teens gross buckets of cash. Their genre of choice was in danger, so the Lionsgate switchboards lit up.
The result? "The Midnight Meat Train" is still being released on 100 screens this week before going to video, probably in October. It's an indication that Lionsgate is no longer in the business of genre filmmaking and that, with its massive new credit line, it's aiming to join the ranks of the major studios. For horror fans, this is a sure sign that the landscape is changing and the "hard-R" horror movie is going the way of the dinosaur. With its digital blood, MTV camera movement, and "Se7en"-style set design, "The Midnight Meat Train" hasn't even been released and it's already a fossil.