Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Don't Squeeze The Quisenberry

Why dislike Byron Quisenberry’s The Outing aka Scream? It’s a modest, quiet horror film that seems to have one foot in the early 70s and the other firmly resting in the early 80s. It has a calm, steady rhythm broken up by loud moments and a climax that is suddenly there and gone. It has a rather cryptic explanation for why it’s doing what it’s doing, which has a strange sense of dread wrapped around it. And, every few minutes the camera goes off on odd tangents quite unlike anything else in American films at that time.

If you spend 82 minutes watching a slow film that doesn’t seem to really do much, I can understand the need for something (anything) to justify the end. The Outing presents it’s explanations very assuredly but there is something missing. And, it’s not the something missing of Final Exam and the motives of its killer, which is explained in a comment made by one of the characters in an off-handed manner. It’s not the “Who is that guy exactly?” of Don’t Go In The Woods. The Madman in that one is a Wildman raised in the woods (with a decent piece of real estate) who is protecting his home.
The Outing is different…But, before I discuss what the heck is going on in the film, I should probably give out a little plot. I don’t know how much of this is needed. A group of around 12 people (2 guides, 10 vacationers) are on some sort of canoe trip. They spend the night on an old Western ghost town street, which may be a real Old West street or an Old West Street movie set, long abandoned. They seem to be heading somewhere more important and just staying here for the night. Soon after darkness sets in someone/ something begins to kill them. The next morning, their canoes are gone and they have to stay in the town for another day. That night, the killing begins again but not before a strange visit from Woody Strode on a horse. He tells an odd tale about a Ship’s Captain and the troubles they had on the sea. Then, he goes. The killer makes an all-out attack on the group until Woody shoots it. The killer is never seen.

All of this is framed by an odd bit in a room (which I am convinced is somewhere in the ghost town) with a couple of paintings and a dresser with a clock and three figurines on it. The figurines are of the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. The opening is a shot of a painting of a ship on a windswept sea. Then, we see the figurines and then the clock, which strikes midnight. The sound of something being sliced through is heard and two things drop. We pan back and see the baker and candlestick maker have lost their heads. The eyes of the butcher turn, fast to the camera.

I know the rhyme. These three men were in a tub getting up to something. No one quite knows why they were there. Something dirty, something wicked. The butcher here seems to silence the other two. But, they’re not meant to be on a whaling type-ship, are they? They’re in a tub or a small rowboat. The ending moments don’t really help either.

We see that the clock is at midnight. The butcher loses his head. We pan up to see the portrait of an African American gentleman who I believe is the captain. The camera fades to the date in the corner: 1851. So, the killer is the ghost of the captain inhabiting the ghost town. It kills anyone who enters there. Woody Strode is his first mate. His rambling tale is an apology for the Captain’s behavior. And, in the end, he stops the killing and the butcher dies.
Does that sound right? Because that is not completely from the movie. I’m extrapolating a bit. I’m wondering if the killer is invisible. That would explain why we never ever see it but we see cleavers, scythes and axes lifted slowly off of walls. Maybe that’s how it is able to so easily get everywhere. People turn and see a cleaver floating through the air and then it whacks them! Who are the baker and the candlestick maker then? The Company Men? Is it a black revenging themselves on white thing? Why these people? What crime could Alvy Moore have committed? And, why is a Captain from the 1850s inhabiting an old ghost town street somewhere on the West Coast, nowhere near the ocean? Doesn’t it seem an odd spot? Shouldn’t he be haunting a wharf in New England?

I’ve watched this film about twenty times. Every time I do I get a little bit closer to what I think is going on but I never quite hit it. Sometimes when I get to the end of one viewing I forget what I learned the previous time. For me, that’s all part of the fun. But, there is more to the film’s appeal than unexplainable motives. There is the whole atmosphere, the style, the odd cast and the general overall creepiness of the whole affair.

I know I may stand alone here but this film still creeps me out. The slow pans through the ghost town at night give me a shaky feeling whenever I watch them. People don’t say much in this movie. And, many times, the camera floats off of them when they do. The dark buildings are scary. When the one man is yanked back into the building and the doorway slams in the camera’s face (lens), my skin crawls. Lou sleeping under the staircase and hearing something go up the steps sends me shivering. The way Alvy Moore seems to see something in one of the buildings and does a little spin makes me glad that Mr. Kimball never went on vacation. And, the few shock moments, the moments when the film bursts onto another level, are as effective as they are surprising. The two big moments I’m thinking of are when the motorcycle rider is tossed through the door and when the axe slams down on Andy’s neck. If you are caught in the rhythm of the film, these two moments can stop your heart for a second.

The whole thing moves at such a slow, deliberate pace but in a different way than other films of this nature. The camera is almost always moving here. There are no shortages of close-ups and coverage in the scenes. This isn’t a film where the camera sits on one end of the room and everyone acts and the next scene begins. The camera has a different set of motives from what we see on screen. And, it knows where the weapons are, which is always a plus.
The camera focuses on a person as they look around or say something. Then, the camera will slowly pan or track away as if it knows that we know what’s going on there but something else more interesting is occurring elsewhere. I don’t recall ever quite seeing anything like it in a film. Possibly in some Argento stuff, where something is occurring and the camera suddenly floats away to reveal something else to the left of the main characters. But, The Outing has less purpose than an Argento film. I always felt that an Argento tangent is very important to the film. It’s revealing information to us. Quisenberry pans or tracks away and seems to be exploring half the time. At first, it’s curious but, once the killings start, it’s just being mischievous by driving us towards the killer when it knows that you can’t kill the camera.

When the Final Girl is a pudgy guy somewhere in his thirties (LOU!) you know that something’s askew. The film feels a bit like a slasher but the ages of the cast (probably late twenties to one real old guy) belie that. I’m not sure what Quisenberry was keeping an eye on but it’s not the pulse of the nation at that time. There’s no nudity and very little gore. The characters are so vague that every time I watch it and see several women huddled together I always think “1…2…3? Where’d the other one come from?” Lou and the jerk are the only ones who stand out. But, neither of them really do much. Everyone is kind of awkward around each other once they realize that any of them could be the killer. So, there are lots of long silences. No one is witty, no one is a wiseass. They’re just normal people who get trapped in an odd, life-threatening situation. They become even less relevant as characters when you think that Woody Strode’s speech is purely for us. They can’t possibly benefit from it because they would need to see the room that we see in order for real sense to be made.

So, what do we have? A deliberate, creepy film that revels in its own low-key oddness. That, from a distance, like Final Exam and The Last Slumber Party seems to be a regular run-of-the-mill horror film that never seems to take off. It seems to want to be a part of the early 80′s slasher craze but doesn’t really know how. It seems classier. When Andy is thrown around the saloon, it seems rather violent until you think that Quisenberry is a stunt man so, naturally, any stunt work is going to be stellar. Why is there no blood? Because, it’s about the stunt, more than the blood. I wish there had been more moments like this but it’s not a problem. The Outing is a film that seems to very clearly say “Here’s what’s going on!” and then defiantly makes little sense. By that I mean, I think Byron knew what was going on but he can’t quite get it to work, to connect. People have to make too many suppositions based on vague information. It’s all of these elements that bring the film together for me and make it something that I enjoy returning to, once or twice a year.
It’s not a well-loved or even liked film. And, its pace can be a bit much. (I almost always drift off during Woody’s tale.) But, watch it with an open mind and just feel it…as it were…The film works. I’d love to see a nice, widescreen version of it. But, I don’t know about commentary and such. Once I find out what’s going on, it may lose some of the magic. I don’t remember Bergman saying exactly what The Silence was about. I’d hope that Mr. Quisenberry would be relatively calm about what he was up to. Keep the mystery.

We champion all kinds of odd stuff around here. For example, Frozen Scream. If you don’t like it, well, you don’t like it. But, if you’ve read some of my stuff and you have a vague idea of what I like, you may gauge why this film has such a special spot on my movie-watching list. Its singular, rather oddball vision makes it worth the time of anyone willing to sit still and absorb. And, one of the great things here is that I don’t think it was meant to be anything more than a slasher film like any other. It’s the gulf in between what I think it was supposed to be and what it is that makes it so interesting, so re-watchable.