by Jason Suzuki
My first encounter with Ryuhei Kitamura was also an early entry in my introduction to Japanese film. Versus (2000) stood alongside other cult-favorite genre titles like Battle Royale and Ichi the Killer that formed a gateway to Japanese cinema for cinephiles of a certain generation. While appreciative of the transcendence over budgetary constraints, I wasn't too particularly taken with the film, eventually preferring other works of Tak Sakaguchi's and Yudai Yamaguchi's. My only other familiarity with Kitamura was the GameCube remake of Metal Gear Solid, subtitled "The Twin Snakes." Kitamura wrote and directed the cut scenes exclusive to the new edition of a game from a director who wanted to be a filmmaker as much as a game creator (they still post selfies together on Twitter). While going through my horror backlog I discovered Kitamura has helmed two American genre films which are quite exceptional: the Clive Barker adaptation The Midnight Meat Train and the action slasher No One Lives. Seen together, Kitamura comes off as a filmmaker not to be taken lightly who just as well does not treat any of the material he works with too lightly. He has high aspirations for B-grade material and his craftsmanship allows him to execute such lofty goals. More is more and should be applied to lesser material.
Being a fan of films coming from the west, particularly those of Australian directors George Miller and Peter Weir, Kitamura went on to study film at a school for the visual arts in Sydney. The un-Hollywood, DIY nature of films like Mad Max certainly shaped Kitamura's own sensibility which can be inferred from the name of his production company Napalm Films. Miller's ability to do a lot with a tight budget must have also resonated with the Japanese filmmaker. This is not to say that Kitamura does not enjoy American-bred entertainments, he has expressed his fandom of filmmakers like George Roy Hill on several occasions; the Mad Max franchise itself drawing much inspiration from the Western tradition. Rather than by specific regions it seems Kitamura has a fondness for the films from an era in which he was beginning to come of age: the 1970s. Born in '69 and more of an avid filmgoer than schoolgoer, these films left a big impression.
Once he started making more commercially successful films, the 2003 picture Azumi drew in crowds much bigger than the cult following Versus had overseas, Kitamura had his eyes set on directing abroad. Before he left for the states he tried his hand at what was intended to be Godzilla's send-off in Godzilla: Final Wars (in another example of his love for 70's cinema, Kitamura states this was supposed to harken back to the golden age of Godzilla films he considered that decade to produce). As with most retirements, this was short lived as a decade later Gareth Edwards took a crack at the kaiju as did Toho most recently with Hideaki Anno.
But Kitamura's foreign aspirations were not as empty as Toho's claim to lay the kaiju to rest, as four years later in 2008 he came out with The Midnight Meat Train an American horror film starring Bradley Cooper and Vinnie Jones. Replacing the previous director Patrick Tatopoulos, a special effects man with an accomplished filmography of creature design work, Kitamura brought his own ideas to the film, making it his own but reportedly not without consulting the original author of the short story upon which the film was based, Clive Barker. It's the first stage in the realization that Kitamura working in the American horror B-movie tradition is a perfect combination.
The Midnight Meat Train
A man wakes up in moving train on the subway. The lack of other people mean it's late and that he probably missed his stop. It's not long after getting up that he slips on a pool of blood in the middle of the train. He gets back up and peers through the gangway connection to the other car and screams in terror. Cue the title: The Midnight Meat Train. It's a standard horror opening, but we'll return to this guy later. Next we see a crowded NYC intersection. Out of focus and slowed down, people and cars create background motion for the eventual appearance of our protagonist in the frame. Leon Kaufman (Bradley Cooper) pops his head in, focused both within frame and demeanor he holds his camera up. Just in these moments is it clear that Kitamura is much more than the slick action director he has become known as. A combination of purely visual choices introduce us to the character. He is driven and obsessed, a voluntary outsider when attempting to capture that split second moment. He is attuned to timing unlike the others in the frame moving in slow motion. Taking a cue from Rear Window we cut to the apartment Leon shares with his girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb), pictures on the wall further indicate Leon's chosen profession as a photographer. Kitamura chooses his images wisely, the thought and care put into the film is arguably more than the script deserves which in its final act sort of goes off [pun involving trains cut out].
As far as being a photographer goes Leon is slumming it, photographing accidents in the hopes of selling to newspapers (a suggestion to being a predecessor to Nightcrawler). He is given an opportunity to finally get artistic exposure when Maya asks mutual friend Jurgis (accomplished musical theatre actor Roger Bart) to introduce Leon to one of his many high-profile connections in the art world, gallery owner Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields). When realizing this fact that Maya, not Leon, takes the initiative to further his career, that once again the girlfriend can be blamed for all the horrors that follow.
Leon's meetup with Susan is a key scene in the film. We get to see an example of his work and hear from his lips what exactly is his driving purpose with his photography. He says he wants to "capture the heart of the city" since he believes no one has done it yet. We know he takes pictures of grisly accidents for quick paychecks but this type of subject matter may be closer to what he is looking for in his own work than let on. When Susan hears this and flips through his portfolio (she knew Basquiat!) she tells him to keep trying and sends him off. According to Jurgis this is better than most people get with the art curator, who also has a thing for younger men like Leon.
Unable to sleep, Leon sets out into the city in the middle of the night to get some photos. Hoff told him that when he thinks he has a moment hold for a few more seconds, essentially telling him to stop being a premature voyeur and evolve into involved bystander. In my favorite character moment, Leon follows a group of thugs into the subway where they start to harass a woman. Saying she needs to pay the fare before she can pass them, going so far as to place a blade against her neck when she doesn't comply. She makes eye contact with Leon who is watching from the top of subway steps. He takes a photo of the moment before he gets the thugs to back off by pointing out some security cameras. It was a noble effort with an asterisk, but she almost immediately falls victim to Mahogany, the butcher of the so-called midnight meat train, played almost sans dialogue by Vinnie Jones. It's this photo that Leon takes to both Susan Hoff and the police when he sees that the girl he saved, a famous model, was reported missing. He's a good guy, but knows a great shot when he takes it.
The girl Leon saves, only to end up victim to Mahogany, is played by Japanese model/actress Nori Sato (link: instagram)https://www.instagram.com/nori_sato_/, credited in the film as NorA. She appeared in Kitamura's previous film LoveDeath (2006) and his following film, the rotoscoped animated Baton (2009). NorA is the only direct indication of Kitamura's Japanese origins seen in the entire film.
There's a few other supporting players of note in the film. Apart from the Leon, Mahogany meets his only other formidable opponent early on in the film in the form of mixed martial artist Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Two years later he would take on Mr. T's role in Joe Carnahan's film reboot of The A-Team also starring Cooper. Ted Raimi also makes a quick appearance before he gets a smack on the back of the head from Mahogany's tenderizer, causing his eyeballs to literally pop out of his head. Just one of many examples of how Kitamura is constantly trying to break expectations and deliver to an audience, even one well-versed in genre films - you could also say especially for a seasoned audience - something they have not seen before.
From Page to Page to Screen
"The Midnight Meat Train" is just one of many stories from Clive Barker's Books of Blood. Published in 1984, the story from which this film was based can be found in volume one of what became a six volume series, each book of blood holding five or six tales. The adaptation is credited to Jeff Buhler who released his own directorial effort, Insanitarium, the same year The Midnight Meat Train came out in 2008. From what sources I could find the initial script was completed around 2005/2006. On a side note Buhler is credited with the rather didactic "J is for Jesus" from The ABCs of Death 2. When reading a draft of the screenplay that can be found online, some thing immediately become clear: Kitamura stripped away much of the dialogue, and the cast all did an amazing job making these characters come to life and feel more than just poor excuses to get the plot moving to the gory bits. Cooper makes Leon much more focused and obsessed than he is in the script. The opening scene has him barely paying attention to Maya as he looks through the shots he took that day. In the script, he is much more engaged with her in conversation. The characterizations are more forceful and work to add a little bit more depth to the proceedings.
The film also doesn't rely too heavily on spoken exposition. Kitamura prefers visuals over dialogue, which can sometimes be a usual occurrence for a director unfamiliar with the second language he is working in, who is forced to rely more on his visual abilities (see: Stoker). Since Kitamura is fluent in English this visual flair I figure results from him wanting to prove himself on foreign soil now that he access to bigger budgets and different means of production that a Hollywood B-picture can afford him. When Leon takes a photo of the Japanese model getting harassed by gangbangers before helping her, she calls him out on it in the script whereas in the film it is left unspoken between the two and therefore must sit primarily with the audience.
Kitamura also has a knack for upping the ante on every detail he can through set-pieces of heightened actions withing a sequence. I will discuss some stand out examples further down but a something quick and easy to illustrate this point is Mahogany lifting a victim up with his meat hook, knocking him against the ceiling. In a script it may just say, "Mahogany dispatches his victims" or "they proceed to fight" it is here were Kitamura shines. Even in romantic scenes the man can't help but up the ante. When Leon surprises Maya with a pre-engagement ring it slides easily onto her finger in the script. In the film, it's a tight fit until Leon sucks on her finger to help her slide the ring on, initiating a sex scene. He even bends her over the counter and eats her out from behind.
The basic structure for the majority of the film is a back and forth between scenes of Leon getting deeper and deeper into the disappearance of the Japanese model he saved one night/preparing for his chance to have his work displayed and scenes of Mahogany acquiring meat in the after hours, including in this back and forth is the scene where we see Mahogany slicing off the growths on his chest which he then collects in jars. But with a simple image from the front of the train taking a slight right off the usual track, we become trained to associate this with impending doom, or excitement depending on your level of fandom for blood and gore, of which this film delivers plenty, employing both copious amounts of syrup and CGI in order to provide the goods. You would think that the sequence where Ted Raimi gets both of his eyeballs smacked out of his head would be the center attraction but there you would be wrong. In the scene with Raimi, his wife, and a friend showing them around town, once Mahogany takes out the two men he moves onto the women crawling away on a floor covered in her husband's blood. From here we go first person, here hands too slippery with blood to hold onto anything as Mahogany drags her. He turns her around and gives her a few hits to the face with his hammer before he head rolls off. We see an image of Mahogany standing over the headless woman form which we then pull out, making it the reflection on the eye of the disembodied head, all seamlessly done.
It's an insane combination of the aftermath of Janet Leigh's murder in Psycho with the mirror sequence in Contact, and it speaks to a larger consistency found within Kitamura's visual language. The desire to let each shot to have a beginning, middle, and end shows a meticulousness reminiscent of Brian De Palma. Through racking focus, tracking shots, reflections in mirrors, etc., Kitamura’s camera progresses the story through this intricate choreography. This especially seen in the moments when Leon is following Mahogany to his job at the meat packing facility. Since Leon is a photographer himself, we become more attuned to shot composition in the film. Much like how the score is more noticeable during the few seconds the composer is mentioned in the opening credits.
Speaking of the score, here's a highlight from the work Germany-based composer Johannes Kobilke turned in for the film. Used most effectively when Leon first sees Mahogany emerge from the underground on an escalator.
Character revelations occur throughout the film thanks to Leon's photography, in this case it is the ring Mahogany wears that Leon is able to cross check with an image he shot the night of NorA's disappearance. Eventually the structure's back and forth between Leon and Mahagony is not so fine cut and starts to blur. Once the wheels are set in motion that Leon will become Mahogany's successor, Leon spirals further into obsession. The scene where he breaks his vegetarianism differs in an interesting way between the film and the script (forget the short story at this point because many of the film's key details were not found in the original). In the script it is Jurgis and Otto the chef who entice Leon to try some hamburger but in the film it is Leon who picks away at Jurgis' steak without permission before requesting one of his own. It's more forceful and goes a long way towards making the character more interesting. He gets in so deep that he can't take a picture of his naked girlfriend without thinking about Mahogany and the Midnight Meat Train.
At this point in his career, things were starting to take off for Bradley Cooper, getting prominent roles in such Hollywood fare as The Wedding Crashers, Yes Man, The Rocker and Failure to Launch. But these were all supporting roles, best-friend characters. He had been the lead before in smaller productions but The Midnight Meat Train was his biggest starring role yet, until the next year with The Hangover. On paper Kitamura's film would seem like the horror film Cooper did early in his career and quickly moved on from, in other words the Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation to his Matthew McConaughey. The only problem with this analogy is that this film is nothing to be ashamed of and judging from everyone's performance in the film, Kitamura was able to get them to treat the material more than a paycheck or another bullet on the CV. The film's appearance in Silver Linings Playbook leaves Cooper's remembrance of the film in question though.
The final act of the film I can easily see being the most divisive. It's clear that there is a larger conspiracy at work here, given the involvement of the conductor as well as the police detective's lack of interest in Leon and Maya when they come to her with proof of foul play on separate occasions. And near the end of the second act is it revealed that something supernatural is involved when Leon is captured by Mahogany and instead of being added to the meat pile he gets branded by some creatures that board the bus. Yes, this is certainly a tale from Clive Barker. It's here where the sense the films once made is always on the verge of crumbling when given too much thought [Why does Mahogany spare Leon , thereby ensuring that he will become his successor. If he wanted to die why does he put up such a fight as we see in the film's glorious finale?] but it is also here where Kitamura refuses to let anything take away from the fun of the film.
Leon's erratic behavior causes a rift within his relationship with Maya and therefore a rift within the narrative of the film. We now cross back and forth between Leon, who in a last ditch effort for normalcy attends the gallery opening that features some of his work, and Maya, who drags Jarvis along with her to retrieve Leon's camera from Mahogany. In a clever but of visual A to B, Maya uses one of Leon's photos to figure out where Mahogany lives (Don't ask how she knows which apartment is his though. Like I said, things begin to crumble). Once inside his apartment Maya and Jurgis split up to find the camera but instead end up taking more time marveling at all the weird shit he has in his drawers and cabinets; mainly his belonging consist of butcher tools and jars of the growths he cuts from his chest. Of course Mahogany returns to his apartment and to make this obvious bit of suspense more interesting Kitamura places his camera ceiling level, able to move between rooms. It's a slick effect that recalls work as diverse as De Palma's Snake Eyes, Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and the translucent ceiling in Hitchcock's The Lodger.
Maya is able to escape but Jurgis doesn't fare so well. Leon leaves the art gallery show - spurred on by the image of Mahogany he took when he followed him to his day job at a meat packing plant, yet another example of his photography progressing the plot - and heads for the train. Maya knows where to go thanks to the police detective who is involved in the conspiracy. Leon goes back to the underground of the meat packing plant and starts to gear up with butcher tools. It's a little ridiculous the idea of him suiting up but makes sense as the next step to him replacing Mahogany. Even more ridiculous is how he jumps aboard the speeding train, using a meat hook to hold on to the end of the train, when he sees Maya inside.
The final showdown between Leon and Mahogany is undeniably insane, and Kitamura packs it with many moving parts. Maya is present, as is Jurgis except he has been shaved down and is hanging upside down like a meat rack. In a great bit of Achilles abuse Maya tries to lift him off the rack but instead makes it worse when she can't handle the weight and lets him drop, putting the strain back on his ankles. In the train car that contains the duel, other bodies like Jurgis are also hanging, creating an environmental element that film takes advantage of during the scene. The film takes a cue from Leone and slightly prolongs the buildup before the two me start swinging at each other. But because this is Kitamura, the stares don't last long. We do get quick graphic matches of Leon holding his weapon in the foreground with his opponent at the other end of the train. He breaks the 180 degree rule in order to give the same shot but from Mahogany's end. Yet again, likening the two and cementing Leon's transformation.
The most noteworthy moment of visual panache is when the camera leaves the train and circles around the speeding car, forcing us to watch the fight through grimy windows. When Leon gets almost tossed out of the car himself by crashing through a window is when the camera has an opening to return to the inside of the car. Even beyond the technique of how the sequence was shot, on a choreography level the film makes brilliant use of the bodies that line the train car. Swings of their respective weapons are taken by the bodies, and when the human meat slabs are smashed into pieces, those pieces of limbs are then used as weapons by the Leon and Mahogany. Unfortunately that means Jurgis is going to take a slice or two until eventually he gets split open into a waterfall of blood arguably more flamboyant than anything Bart had to do in The Producers.
The full-on appearance of the creatures, with the reveal that a small group of humans appease them by feeding them their desired meat, is where this truly feels like you are watching a different film. Partially in the sense that the core thriller/serial killer mystery has become full-fledged fantasy horror but mostly due to this section seeming the least thought out. References to people feasting on each other are sprinkled throughout the film, only barely noticeable on repeat viewings which is admiral that they were not beating us on the head with it, but it doesn't help with all the questions that come with such drastic turns like this. In the short story there is a creature the size of a building which is why the humans can't just go down and exterminate them. But why do they need the humans prepared for them at all? Part of the job of the midnight train butcher is to remove all clothes, hair, and eyeballs (which are then put nicely into Tupperware containers), but why wouldn't the monsters just feed for themselves? Why does there need to be a balance? Literal inconsistencies like this lead us to the figurative of the story's circumstances. In order to keep the balance of our modern lives - art, relationships, tofu eating - sacrifices must be made. The only types of people to be sacrificed are those who would be found on the last train after 2am. Let that lead your mind to whatever social commentary you want.
Outside the train Leon must fight Mahogany once again in a pile of bones. He kills him at which point the conductor declares him the next butcher, or rather he reiterates that the creatures had already chosen Leon for the job. "[Mahogany] was getting sloppy," He rips out Leon's tongue explaining the lack of dialogue Vinnie Jones had in the film (but then opening up the question as to why this was necessary) and then goes over to an unconscious Maya and tears her heart out. He offers the still beating heart to Leon. Finally, he now has the heart of the city he searching for.
So Leon becomes the next Mahogany - whose name was derived from the bag he carried around with his tools, does this mean Leon will be known going forward as Mahogany or does he get his own special name like Leica? Even donning the same haircut as Jones, Leon sets off to work. In the final scene he gets on the late train and walks past some occupants including a sleeping bald guy. Yes, the same one from the beginning of the film. It's a nice little detail I didn't pick up on until the third time I saw the film: that the shadowy figure butchering people on the train at the start is none other than our hero. Once again, the attention to detail on display here is surprising. The supernatural elements of the film’s third act might leave more questions than would be desired but overall it's hard not to be charmed by the film. His American followup though will not share these same problems and would be stripped down to the point where even the title tells you what will transpire.
No One Lives
His next US work would be 2012's No One Lives. In between this and The Midnight Meat Train Kitamura directed a rotoscoped animated film from a script by Shunji Iwai (Iwai would later go on to use the rotoscope technique for his prequel to Hana and Alice released in 2015). Once he received the Midnight job Kitamura relocated to Hollywood which is where Iwai also happened to be living at the same time. This wasn't the beginning of their relationship as Iwai had been involved with Azumi before Kitamura would go on to helm it. Baton was released in 2009, clocking in under an hour. Wanting to make full use of the fact that it was animated, it was a project which satisfied his desire to not stagnate. His return to live action, while loosely within the horror genre, something The Midnight Meat Train was firmly rooted in, would be something very different for the director.
In order for No One Lives to not be a hard sell, which on the surface it seems like your standard hicks kidnap and torture yuppies affair, the cat must be let out of the bag. Or rather, the hostage must be let out of the secret compartment in the trunk of the yuppies's car. Even the film's marketing materials knew that revealing the first act twist was a necessary evil to get people to see the film, including it in the trailer. The story of a group of criminals who fuck with the wrong dude is an appealing concept but the film does plan ahead for an audience made up of those in the know. Even for those going in blind it's clear that something is amiss between the road tripping couple of Betty (Laura Ramsey) and Driver (Luke Evans). For instance, the fact that his name is never revealed is red flag number one. But for the crowd waiting for the "shit to go down" as it were, the relationship between Betty and Driver is what makes the opening interesting and not a drag. There is obviously tension within their relationship, Betty refers to another woman which is either the hostage or could be taken as a general reference to possible infidelity depending on whether you saw the trailer.
But before the film even gets into Driver's lady problems, our cold open is a misty forest. The girl at the enter of this mess whose name we later learn is Emma Ward (Adelaide Clemens), runs half-naked, clearly in the middle of an escape. A trap of spread out glass shards temporarily halts her progress but is now also a weapon for the resourceful woman. It's all for naught as she walks into another trap that has her suspended by her feet in the air. Knowing she's lost she grabs onto a tree and carves into the bark as the glass carves into her own hand. Kitamura's camera gives us a dead center image of the note she carved into the tree, we rotate our view so as to match her POV. "EMMA ALIVE" it reads.
For being a psychopath, Driver gets some moments to show a sense of humor. The way Luke Evans plays him is as if the conscious of the tormentors and the look of the tormented in Haneke's Funny Games were blended into one man, with a dash of Voorhees/Myers on the side. He cracks wise with Betty even though she is going through a rather serious existential crisis (more on that later) and his interaction with the motel owner has two gems: when the motel owner remarks on the Driver's real name being strange when given his credit card "My father had an unforgiving commitment to historical reference" and when given the key to room 8, "Infinity, I like it." The film doesn't shy away from the more unsavory aspects of his character. When the motel own remarks how young Betty is Driver says he likes them that way (again, more on that later).
No matter how fun a B-movie concept No One Lives has, it is still admittedly simple. But for such a simple concept packed into such a short film, no moment is wasted to keep things moving forward. In their motel room Betty walks out of the shower, on the news is the report of a hunter finding Emma's tree note, introducing us to who the girl was at the start of the film. We also get some serious confirmations that Betty is not your typical girlfriend, or your typical accomplice for that matter. When they see the note Emma carved into the tree Betty says, "I don't think I would have thought to do that." Driver asks Betty to take her towel off, he crouches down to kiss the tiny scar on her left lower abdomen, something we later see Emma has as well. Betty's attitude during the couple's road trip is not just a jealous girlfriend or an existential crisis but better summed up as a Stockholm crisis. Betty has been in Emma's shoes before. This is a lot that Kitamura is laying out before us and we haven't even been introduced to the people who will make up the film's death count.
We meet our slasher fodder in media res of one of their jobs. Dressed as a moving company the group strips upper class homes of their worldly belonging while the homeowners are out of town. The gang is led by Hoag (Lee Tergesen) and includes his girlfriend Tamara (America Olivo), his gorilla sized brother Ethan (Brodus Clay at the time with WWE, now known as Tyrus), his daughter's boyfriend Denny (Beau Knapp), and then there's Flynn (Derek Magyar) whose the moody wildcard of the group. In this scene alone it's hard to understand why they keep Flynn around as 1) his intel was wrong as the homeowners catch them in the middle of robbing their house and 2) he kills the whole family before Hoag even gets to attempt to talk his way out of things thereby making the entire operation a bust. Everyone's net worth remains the same and the tensions rise within the group.
Driver and Betty go out for dinner at a small diner, the only place for miles in the backwoods area they've stopped in. This is where we meet our last part of the cast of criminals: Hoag's daughter Amber, played by Lindsey Shaw of Pretty Little Liars fame (team Paily or bust), working as a waitress. She's the only one who has a legitimate line of work and as Emma says later, "the one person who actually had a soul." Their dinner date is interrupted by Hoag's crew, specifically Flynn who plops himself down at Driver and Betty's table. It's just one of a few moments in the film where characters refer to themselves as the bad ass, cold-blooded killer that Driver really is until they find out he is the real deal psycho. Seeing that this well-to-do couple is his way to make up for the lost score he caused earlier, Flynn attacks them later on the road. Driver wakes up handcuffed to a chair in an old gas station. This is where the fun begins.
The film crosscuts between Driver and Betty being held captive and Flynn taking their car and trailer back to Hoag's place to show his catch. Ethan is supposed to torture some bank account information out of Driver so he puts a knife to Betty's throat. Oblivious to the knife she confesses to Driver that she's at the end of her rope. This is happening while Flynn searches the trunk of their car, finding that secret compartment and the air holes. Betty slices her own throat as an eye looks out at Flynn. Her fears of being replaced are visualized in the film. Once she is gone is when we fully see Emma, Betty has been exchanged.
Driver Details: Driver wags his fingers at Ethan's use of handcuffs, "Haven't you guys heard of zipties?" he asks before jabbing the handcuffs through Ethan's jaw. When Flynn and company get Emma out of the trunk notice that they need to cut her hands free from a ziptie. Driver practices what he preaches.
a more experienced Slasher, wiser final girl
Like My Bloody Valentine, this story is the sequel to a film we never saw, only hinted at through news clips and a brief recounting by the lone survivor Emma. After finding her in the trunk of Driver's car the robbers clean her up and want answers. But she wants to know if they did the smart thing and killed Driver when they had the chance. When she finds out they didn't she tries to make a run for it but decides to stay in the hopes that while they are getting picked off she can get away. It's like if the final girl in a slasher movie knew she was the prized victim for the killer so she gathers her friends to be body count fodder while she plans her escape.
Emma gets some of the best lines in the film. Driver has a few as well but most were taken out by the time filming began to keep him less commando, more slasher. Here's a few choice cuts from Emma:
"My best hope of escape is while he's killing the whole bunch of you."
"I'm your path to living and you seem bent on playing the dying game."
Emma is eventually recognized by Amber, who is the only one who wants to clean her up and show any mercy (the one person who actually had a soul as Emma says after Flynn mows her down with the truck). Amber has seen Emma before as the subject of a true crime show she watches. Emma is heir to a rich publishing company and has been missing for over a year now. She and fourteen friends (Driver did say he was a numbers guy) were celebrating the end of semester until Driver showed up. Essentially this film is the final act showdown between slasher and final girl in which a smaller slasher film breaks out during.
This film's knowing approach to genre acts a precursor to something like The Guest, where disparate elements are blended together in a way where it is cinematically aware, but not going to take the time to stop and be proud of it (i.e. Cabin in the Woods). "Transcendent genre cinema" if you will. An "action slasher" is a good enough descriptor to No One Lives but even then it doesn't fully convey how everything goes down in the film to the same extant that saying something is a straight up slasher would. It's open for debate on how to describe this movie; there's a third label just out of reach, unattainable due to how the film marches to its own drum. For now, "action slasher" will just have to do.
Having infiltrated the premises by hiding himself in Ethan's hollowed out body - arguably the film's money shot - Driver surveys Hoag's home in the nude, covered in gore. Only Emma seems able to notice him whether through the front door or out a window looking back at her. There is a connection there, something that Betty sensed to her discontent. Once the game begins Kitamura uses a quick bit of juxtaposition to further cement how fucked everyone really is by contrasting how each side is gearing up. All their cards are laid out on the table:
Having been through this once before, along with other trials seen in a flashback of her time in captivity, Emma stays off to the side, letting everyone else get injured and picked off one at a time. The only advice she gives is reiterations that it's too late. The deaths are not bad: wood chipper, blade thrown through the chest, and Denny, in what the film turns into its running joke, gets increasingly mangled - and not just by Driver!
There's a number of top-notch visuals here. A particular favorite is Driver hiding behind cover while Flynn and Tamara fire their guns at nobody in the background. While clearly using digital means to achieve the effect, it recalls the diopter shots of De Palma, except there is no out of focus line down the middle.
And the movement from inside the house to the outside recalls the beheading sequence in The Midnight Meat Train.
What's so interesting about this film, from the angle of it being helmed by Kitamura, is that naturally his no nonsense style fits perfectly with that of what would suit the film, but it also easily aligns with Driver's attitude about getting things done. You should never feel disoriented during a moment of action of the film. Even when a character is disoriented, Kitamura prefers clean and concise filmmaking over shaky cameras and nonsensical cuts. Taking a moment from the film's opening, when Emma gets caught in one of Driver's traps, that ties around her feet, forces her to the ground, and has her dangling upside down in the air, we see that each shot is vital to the moment. Kitamura even mixes character POV of moments of disorientation in quick bursts, used when someone gets punched or when Emma gets flung into the air. He cuts on action which makes the sequence less overwheliming. This is a simple technique that action directors whether indie, Hollywood, or international don't seem to remember. Kitamura is the Driver to their Emmas.
Reading David Cohen's screenplay gives even more insight into how much effort was put into making the film leaner. First of all, as mentioned before, many of Driver's lines were taken out for the film. He's talkative and has a sense of humor but the level of dialogue he had in the script made him less of a force of evil and more of an annoying asshole who happens to be good at killing. There is not a character in the film who didn't have lines cut. Even the opening scene where Emma runs through the woods had Emma talking to herself the whole time. Showing the mark of a truly visual filmmaker, all of this was taken out as were images of Driver stalking her in the forest. If there is ever one example indicative of this stripping down as a whole it is that in the script Emma carves "EMMA WARD IS ALIVE" into the tree, in the film it's just "EMMA ALIVE." This is more realistic since she doesn't have to carve out a whole sentence while dangling upside down, glass cutting into her hand, and it's a quicker read for the audience.
The biggest changes occur within Hoag's crew. First of all we have two extra characters in the script: Albert, another robber, who is the one to accompany Denny to check on Ethan instead of Tamara; and Angel who is the real guy running the operation that Hoag and company worry will find out how bad they fucked up by messing with Driver. These character are vestigial and were removed by dividing them up to the remaining characters.
The other major change is the dynamic between Hoag and Flynn, in which there really isn't one at all. In the script we are introduced to the gang in media res of one of their house robberies but instead they do so while the family is still home, all of them taking part in stalking and killing the family. This is no real way to get that power struggle seen in the film. In the film we see that Hoag is the leader, Flynn is the loose cannon, and get minor introductions to other dynamics of the gang. In the script we get bloodshed that might have been trying to set them up as more serious adversaries to Driver, but in the end it's more interesting the impossibility of the situation they get themselves into. Hoag also celebrates Flynn when he brings back Driver's car and trailer as opposed to the film where it's seen as another one of Flynn's mistakes - arguably his biggest mistake - before they realize there is a reward for returning Emma to her family.
Amber's death is more drawn out in the script, starting with an extended foot chase between her and Driver in the woods before moving into a showdown inside an abandoned cabin. As a fan I would always welcome more screen time for Lindsey Shaw (#Paily), but it seems a little ridiculous and unnecessary that the only person to give Driver a run for his money would be Amber and not Emma.
Blood is used as a directorial tool for Kitamura. In both The Midnight Meat Train and No One Lives he has characters slipping into a pool of blood to establish a location/as an over the top and messy way to show something is amiss. And Kitamura has no problem allowing blood to freely splash onto the camera lens. When it happens in No One Lives it is used sparingly leading me to think it was added digitally, meaning it is something insisted upon rather than happening by accident. I would classify this as a casually postmodern device for genre cinema, meant more for an unconscious reaction rather than an intellectual one. We acknowledge the brutality onscreen rather than the camera. I feel the opposite was achieved when a similar splatter happened in Children of Men where the filmmakers want you to acknowledge the craft of their filmmaking. Cauron even realized this as the blood, this time a practical effect that accidentally hit the camera, was digitally removed partway through the long take when he wants you to resume focusing on the story.
We also get another overhead shot ala The Midnight Meat Train in the motel bathroom when Driver climbs through the window to take out Tamara:
This along with Oculus are probably the best works to come out of WWE Studios, a logo which might instill fear into someone who felt they were already taking a chance on the film to begin with. WWE Studios were most likely the ones to supply Kitamura with Brodus Clay, a man who has a body big enough for Luke Evans to hide in once hollowed out [interesting side-note: Oculus is one of the only films from the production company to not feature a wrestling talent]. When Amber and Tamara have a quick cat fight, throwing each other into nearby furniture and any men who happen to be using said furniture, is the only other indication of the studio's involvement. When Driver goes one-on-one with Flynn, the move where he wraps his legs around his head to do a stranglehold is somewhat reminiscent of a wrestling match. And considering that it's a cliched move for female action characters, the fact that a dude is doing it to another dude is a tad refreshing.
The way the film was marketed brings up interesting questions on what is the purest way to watch the film. The way that the opening is ever evolving, how revelations change the way we see the establishing scenes, suggests that the filmmakers accounted for the premise to be spoiled for most. Even so, the first twenty minutes are not treated as the temptingly fast-forwardable dreg most other films of this variety seem to handle things.
The Title as Verb
The final showdown at the motel where Driver stayed earlier is where Emma gets to put into practice being the woman that Driver molded her into. When Flynn gets the upperhand on Driver she saves him to his surprise. She doesn't want anyone but her to be the one to kill him. This is not surprising but how Driver turns the tables back around on her is. In a show of newfound dominance she tells him this isn't one of his psychological games, that she has finally won. He throws it back at her, if this were one of his twisted psychological games he would have her saying just that. But alas, college girls don't seem to know everything. For instance, that you must pump the shotgun if you want it to fire. He grabs this to her and shoots a round off past her face, which would deafen her if this movie wasn't hurtling past us. It's a dynamic that never gets fully developed in the film but I think Emma passes Driver's test by proving she doesn't need him anymore. She was willing to kill him while Betty became his lover. He reopens the lower abdominal scar she shared with Betty and pulls out a blinking tracking device. The fact that it has a flashing red light is ridiculous until you start to think like a filmmaker who must convey something to an audience in a matter of seconds without words.
In total our body count is nine people, fourteen if you count kills not performed by Driver, and an additional fourteen if you count the time Driver crashed Emma's party. Who has end of the semester parties anyway?
But don't forget Denny, who miraculously is still alive by the end of the film. Driver, the hero that he is, keeps the promise of the title and uses a doctor's clipboard to do the job. He even leans down and whispers the title into Denny's ear. In the script Driver sets Emma free and tells her that it's her turn to find him. It's a lame attempt to keep it open for a sequel where she is supposed to try and get revenge on what has proven to be an unstoppable man. In the film the line is removed and Driver even gets to touch Emma once last time as he exits the hospital. The film chooses period over ellipsis.
In order to give the film a fuller run time, the end credits are drawn out over eight minutes, making the film itself one hour and eighteen minutes. That's how bare bones they got the script down to. As far as cast/crew size Lawrence of Arabia this is not. Sitting alongside Crank: High Voltage, it doesn't matter how much filler the end credit are as long as the film is good. No One Lives doesn't even put outtakes in during the credits. As Betty says before slicing her own throat, "It was fun while it lasted."
For some odd reason horror is a genre he has tackled and deconstructed only on North American soil. His upcoming project, The Doorman, looks to be more of thriller with a home invasion premise (it is also his return to Hollywood since No One Lives, a live-action Lupin III was completed in the meantime). Close quartered sequences of physical conflict are a strength of Kitamura's. He is able to incorporate the setting with the action and finds ways to make creative use of how the camera interacts with location as seen in the fight between Cooper and Jones on the speeding train. From his early years as a fan of, largely Australian, foreign film to his place now as an auteur of underrated American thrillers that don't shy away from the grisly, Kitamura is a truly global filmmaker. He sees no material as beneath him and with that attitude has done nothing but elevate any project he takes on, pushing each film beyond its means in the hopes of creating something that stands out. The no-bullshit attitude he applies to specifically his English-language efforts give them an edge guaranteeing fan-favorite status if not cult-classic.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift. He can be heard on the podcast Bridge on the River Kawaii.