Blu-ray Review ‘The Outing’: A Fright at the Museum

OutingWhen The Outing — then called The Lamp — was filmed in Houston in 1987, I covered the production as an entertainment writer for the Houston Chronicle. Unlike RoboCop 2 or The Evening Star, it was a homegrown effort, written and produced by Warren Chaney and starring his wife, Deborah Winters, who both still live here.

The production company was Fred Kuehnert’s H.I.T. Films — though the name did not prove prophetic. The Outing had meager theatrical distribution.

After minimal home video exposure over the years, The Outing comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory on Tuesday, July 14, topping a double bill with 1980 chiller The Godsend.

This is not the full-length 105-minute cut often cited for director Tom Daley’s The Lamp, but rather an 89-minute version, and the disc sports no extras. But sometimes the movie is enough, and The Outing, given its low-budget parameters, is a surprisingly effective horror romp with a cast that largely sells the premise, despite its shaky foundation.

An ancient, magical lamp from Iraq winds up at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, whose curator (James Huston) has a daughter (Andra St. Ivanyi) and, while not working late, dates her high school teacher (Winters).

She and her high school friends plan to invade the museum after hours for an all-night slumber party. The unleashed genie from the lamp — who’s no Robin Williams-style playmate — plays blood-drenched havoc, as do two punks with murderous designs.

The film ripples with fun ’80s nostalgia, and the local color is a treat for anyone who lived in Houston at the time, from seeing news anchor Ron Stone on KPRC TV and hearing the KKBQ morning show jingle on the radio to seeing a Chronicle on the breakfast table and spending quality time in the HMNS, a superb facility that’s become huge in the years since this was made. In fact, it’s one of the most attended museums in the country, with around 3 million visitors a year.

My guess is that the HMNS is too big and prestigious today to allow a production such as this in its doors. I say this because The Outing, while gruesomely entertaining and true to its genre, sometimes takes sensationalism across the border of exploitation and into the land of outright sleaze.

Namely, there’s an interracial rape scene here which I’d rather not see again. Just doing its job, the film also serves lots of nudity — some of it full-frontal — and ample blood-drenched gore. A Night at the Museum it’s not.

One of the perpetrators is a sad story in himself. He’s Mark “Red” Mitchell, a young Houston area actor who played Mike, a creep whom St. Ivanyi for some reason dated and, since she dumped him, is out for revenge — in a big way. He’d very much fit into the crowd of Bobby on Twin Peaks — only he’s worse.

Mitchell went on to gain roles in more mainstream fare, including 8 Seconds and Oliver Stone’s JFK.  Then in 1994, at age 33, he was killed while driving a pickup across an uncontrolled railroad crossing.

A crew member who’s also passed on was production designer Robert Burns, a Texas guy who was art director on the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I last saw him on the set of Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World in Central Texas, I believe as an extra.

On a lighter note, The Outing has a museum guard who sings opera — quite well — as he makes his lonely rounds amid dinosaur skeletons and ancient mummies. Not bad for a Houston Grand Opera wannabe. I also got a kick out of St. Ivanyi glancing at the newspaper’s sports section and bemoaning that the Astros lost again. I feel your pain, girl!

As for other cast members, Winters also served as executive producer and played two other roles in heavy makeup. Now a real estate agent in the Houston area, she’s also known for starring opposite Walter Matthau in Kotch and for appearing in the original The Winds of War miniseries with Robert Mitchum. Not bad.

So you see? Call it The Lamp or call it The Outing, but this was in some ways a big “little” movie, costing close to $2 million and delivering what it promised. I’ve always said of such horror potboilers: If exploitation flicks are your genre, then get busy and exploit. The Outing may not be art, but in that respect I rubbed my lamp and got my wish.

— Bruce Westbrook

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