I miss Orion.
I used to love seeing their logo in front of movies. They made a lot of movies, big and small, and they picked up films for release other people wouldn’t. They were a hip label. It does not surprise me at all to see the Orion logo on the front of “Over The Edge,” a great teens-against-the-world movie set in New Granada, a planned community in the middle of nowhere that has gone horribly, horribly wrong. What does surprise me is that Orion, of all distributors, chickened out when they were confronted with Jonathan Kaplan’s film, and they refused to release it to theaters out of fear.
What the hell could be in a movie about teenagers that would cause a distributor to lose their nerve altogether? Is this like some Larry Clark movie gone mad, some filthy, crazy, dangerous thing? Are we talking about something so graphic that no one would be able to sit through it? Actually… no.
So why would a film finished in 1979 get dumped to HBO in 1981? Why was it shelved for two years? And why would a film that the distributor didn’t even want to release end up on a list of the movies I feel you absolutely have to see? What is it about “Over The Edge” that causes such passions, both good and bad?
[more after the jump]
Charlie Haas, a screenwriter on “Tex,” “Gremlins 2,” and “Matinee,” started his career as a journalist, and while he was at the San Francisco Examiner, he did a story about a planned community in northern California called Foster City, where the juvenile crime rate evidently skyrocketed. His article, “Mouse Packs: Kids On A Crime Spree” caught the eye of Tim Hunter, who Haas met while studing film at UC Santa Cruz. Hunter recognized that in the true story, there were seeds that would make for a great, classic exploitation film, and he convinced Haas to write it with him. The two of them treated their research like journalism, interviewing the real kids, doing everything they could to understand what caused the problems in Foster City, and their script ended up putting the kids front and center, trying to understand and explain them with the parents and the authorities as the supporting players, the forces at work against the kids. That’s where they made the best possible artistic choice, and it’s also where they probably lost their theatrical release.
Jonathan Kaplan was a Roger Corman graduate, coming off of a run of films including “Night Call Nurses,” “The Student Teachers,” and “While Line Fever.” That background meant that he didn’t approach this like an art film, or like a highbrow drama. He went right for the guts of the thing, and his shooting style and his casting is what took a good script and brought it roaring to life. Kaplan’s the one who found Matt Dillon, who swaggers onto the screen as a fully-formed teen idol in this film. His character Ritchie is pretty much Dillon as they found him, serving out a suspension for smoking. He’s got a huge attitude, and other kids find themselves following him even if they’re not sure why. The whole cast is made up of unknown kids at the time, and this is one of the reasons I love the ’70s so much. Look at the faces of these kids… they weren’t picked because they’re movie-star perfect. These days, you get young casts together, and they all look like they’re waiting for their own show on the CW. Back in the ’70s, they looked like real kids. Rough around the edges, awkward in their own skins.
The film follows a kid named Carl (Michael Eric Kramer), whose dad is one of the main people behind New Granada, trying to sell space in the industrial park and keep the city growing. Carl’s a “good kid,” but he’s fallen in with a “bad crowd.” Or at least that’s how the parents see it. The truth is that there’s really only one peer group in New Granada because they’re so far from anything else. The only place for the kids to go in the afternoons is a community center, and it’s little wonder they turn to recreational drugs and random vandalism for entertainment. In all the planning that went into New Granada, little thought seems to have been given to the reality of kids actually living there, and as adults seem to wake up to the problem, all they can think to do is try and clamp down on the kids with even more control instead of dealing with them as people who deserve recreational outlets. There’s one cop in particular, the aptly-named Doberman (Harry Northup), who just refuses to let up on the kids, and so they lash out at him over and over. The films events kick off when a couple of teens shoot a BB gun at Doberman’s windshield from a freeway overpass. His attempts to figure out who did it so he can punish them leads to a downward spiral of events culminating in a full-blown riot that pretty much ends the dream of New Granada.
The film drifts from event to event with the same sort of dreamy loose quality that marks some of the more recent films from Gus Van Sant, like “Paranoid Park” or “Elephant,” but Kaplan’s got that exploitation director’s heart beating in his chest, so he can’t help but goose things along with random bursts of violence or partying, and the soundtrack is packed with songs that would be impossibly expensive to license today. Although shot in Colorado, the film could be set anywhere. New Granada is perfectly bland and featureless, the sort of community that could drive anyone mad if they’re unable to leave it. The kids get these occasional bursts of freedom, and then almost immediately, the parents fall on them like a ton of bricks. By keeping you with the kids and their perspective for the whole film, Kaplan makes you feel their frustrations. When they finally erupt into violence, there’s an inevitability to it, and maybe that’s what freaked Orion out. After all, “The Warriors” had attracted controversy when real gang violence erupted during screenings of the movie, and this was near the start of Orion as a company. They couldn’t afford to be sued by theater owners or distraught parents if something went wrong in a theater where “Over The Edge” was screening. The ending of the film is an amazing orgy of violence and destruction, and shooting it must have been a liberating experience for the young cast. Imagine being 14 or 15 years old and being given carte blanche to trash a real school, burn police cars in the parking lot, smash and destroy anything you want. These are the images that haunt every parent’s worst nightmares, and Kaplan never flinches. He takes it further than you think he’s going to, even after the sequence starts, and I have no doubt that the sequence scared the hell out of parents when they saw it.
The movie has its quiet moments, too. I love the scene where Carl is hiding out, and Cory (Pamela Ludwig) comes to see him and brings a sleeping bag for him. Their night together, and especially their goodbye in the morning, set against a gorgeous sunrise shot brilliantly by Andrew Davis (yes, the director of “The Fugitive” was the D.P. of this film) is one of the great teen movie images. There’s a real “Outsiders” vibe here, but that film romanticizes the loneliness of the teen rebel, while this film dares you to look at the ugly, unvarnished face of angry youth and still reject it. The last moments, with almost every teenage boy in New Grenada on the same bus to reform school, suggests that these kids are damaged beyond repair in the eyes of their parents, but that they are unbowed by what they’ve been through. They don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. They did what they had to, and they’re not about to apologize for it.
This one goes out to my friend, Jack, who is a tireless fan of this film, and whose passion for it reminded me how much I’d enjoyed it in the first place. This is why I love my film nerd buddies. If you’ve never seen this one, reportedly one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite movies and a major influence on the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, then check it out. It’s aged beautifully, and it may just make you want to engage in a little rebellion of your own.
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