OVER THE EDGE (1979)
A group of bored teenagers rebel against authority in the community of New Granada after the death of one of their own.
Although the 1970s began with Hollywood experiencing a financial and artistic depression, the decade became a creative high point for the film industry. Restrictions on language, sexuality, and violence had been eased, giving filmmakers unchallenged artistic freedom. Like many directors that emerged from Roger Corman’s school, Jonathan Kaplan concentrated on outrageous violence, sexual politics, and racism. His feature-length debut, Night Call Nurses (1972), was a politically charged parody of sex comedies, while The Slams (1973) committed to the pulpy entertainment of blaxploitation cinema. Delivering a sympathetic portrayal of the troubled youth of suburban culture, Over the Edge created a benchmark for the teenage rebellion flicks of the 1980s.
The adults are content with their middle-class lifestyle in the newly developed community of New Granada. However, as they focus on developing a profitable industrial park instead of a bowling alley and a movie theatre, they’re ignoring a quarter of the town’s population: teenagers. With the local youth centre as their only distraction, the teens find themselves bored and neglected. Best friends Carl (Michael Eric Kramer) and Richie (Matt Dillon) create their own entertainment by resorting to vandalism, drinking, and taking drugs with their classmates. But when a delinquent shoots a police car, it inadvertently triggers a chain of events that results in a crackdown by the local officials. Furious that his authority’s being challenged, Sgt Doberman (Harry Northup) closes the local youth centre to keep the troublesome kids under control. Unfortunately, his plan soon backfires when a gang of youths initiates a riot that’ll change the town forever.
The ensemble of young actors deliver performances with such authenticity Over the Edge genuinely feels like a documentary. The decision to cast actual teenagers creates a wonderfully authentic community, and allowing these young actors to adapt the dialogue to fit their own way of speaking creates a believable on-screen chemistry. Michael Eric Kramer is believable as the misunderstood teenager turned miscreant, Carl, a quiet middle-class adolescent on a downward spiral in an attempt to impress his friends. But the highlight is a 14-year-old Matt Dillon (To Die For) making his feature-length debut, and naturally exuding confidence and charisma. Sneering classic lines such as “a kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid”, Dillon effortlessly portrays the thuggish Richie. Surprisingly, he originally auditioned as an excuse to skip school without any intention of actually winning the role.
Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, Over the Edge is an emblematic struggle between the oppressed youth and their peers. Echoing his previous work including Truck Turner (1974) and White Line Fever (1975), the rebellious atmosphere permeates the narrative, creating deep empathy for the characters. The director could easily have paralleled the juvenile delinquent flicks from the 1950s, including Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Blackboard Jungle (1955), but Kaplan remains sympathetic towards the teenagers, naturally capturing their veracious struggle without seeming calculated or preachy. As the adults prioritise the prospects of developing industrial parks, New Granada becomes a lifeless condominium community. Instead of accommodating the youths by constructing movie theatres and bowling alleys, the adult’s main concern is the town’s property value. As the grown-ups overlook the real source of the problem, their kids become bored and restless and resort to crime to keep themselves occupied.
The frustration escalates as the authorities continuously harass the teenagers for petty crimes, imposing curfews and closing the youth centre. In one particular scene, Carl and Riche are accused of supposedly breaking a police car’s windscreen. Although the pair are innocent, they’re arrested by Doberman for carrying a pocket knife. This sense of injustice naturally intensifies, creating a pressure cooker environment amongst the teenagers that culminates in an explosive finale. Unlike Class of 1984 (1982) and Rock n Roll High School (1979), there’s a palpable effort to understand adolescent malaise. Heightened by Andrew Davis’ cinematography (The Fugitive), Kaplan takes every opportunity to emphasise the teenage wasteland. The barren desert landscapes and unimaginative Americana homes accentuate how soulless their suburban neighbourhood is. The kids are victims of their environment and the lack of parental attention serves as a poignant warning for adults regarding misunderstood youth.
A gang of youngsters exploding pipe bombs and setting houses ablaze in a small suburban town may sound like the premise for an adolescent Clockwork Orange (1971), but Over The Edge is based on actual events that occurred in the early ’70s in Foster City, California. Co-writers Charlie S. Haas (Gremlins 2: The New Batch) and Tim Hunter’s (Rivers Edge) screenplay was inspired by a newspaper article entitled ‘Mousepacks: Kids on a Crime Spree.’ The story covered a series of incidents that occurred in this supposedly perfect middle-class community. With few activities for the youngsters to do in the city, a gang of teenagers gatecrashed a town meeting to demand changes in their community. During an interview, Hunter stated “there was nothing for the large percentage of teenage kids to do in that town. I think up to 25 percent of the population was below the age of 18. It had the highest percentage of juvenile crime of any comparable city in the country”. After travelling to Foster City and interviewing several of the teenagers involved in the events, Haas and Hunter believed the story would make an entertaining movie.
While Over the Edge is a distinctly ’70s movie, perhaps the sinister younger sibling of Grease (1978), its depiction and treatment of children feels timeless. Even today, older generations fail to understand the “youth of today”, causing friction and the wrong type of social support. Admirably, Kaplan portrays the parents somewhat sympathetically creating an added depth. Carl’s mother (Ellen Geer) is affectionate when he returns home after being attacked, whereas his father (Andy Romano) demands he avoids his troublesome friends. Although their motives are understandable, they’re unknowingly the source of the problem. Unsurprisingly, Kurt Cobain championed the movie, stating “it pretty much defined my personality. It was really cool. Total anarchy.” The director’s punk-rock sensibilities seamlessly tap into youthful disaffection as few films had before. Arguably, Over the Edge has reverberated throughout contemporary cinema. From Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume (1990) to Mathieu Kassovitz La Haine (1998), Kaplan’s feature provides a concept that’s still relevant and worth revisiting.
The casual atmosphere and incredible soundtrack featuring music from Cheap Trick and The Ramones evoke similarities to Dazed and Confused (1993). During an interview, Richard Linklater stated “I’d like to think that Over the Edge influenced Dazed and Confused. Especially along the lines of its honest depiction of the teens themselves.” There are several hilarious moments of “kids being kids”—one highlight occurs when Claude (Tom Fergus) hallucinates whilst looking at Bosch’s The Garden Of Earthly Delights painting. However, while somewhat authentic in its portrayal, it’s certainly not without its imperfections. The climax in which the teenagers trap the adults inside the school is relatively short. While it does feature more exploding cars than an entire series of The A-Team, the ending fails to capitalise on the growing tension created between the teens and adults. Personally speaking, it would’ve been thrilling having the children tormenting the parents and forcing them into humiliating situations for their own amusement. Regardless, its devastating tone echoes Larry Anderson’s If… (1968) and remains as powerful as it did four decades ago.
Due to the controversy surrounding teenage gang movies including The Warriors (1978) and Boulevard Nights (1978), Over the Edge received very little reception during its initial release. However, in 1981 it was granted a special screening and has since found a cult following and received critical acclaim. Jonathan Kaplan’s refusal to judge the teenagers and their shocking behaviour is the key to its success. It authentically demonstrates the adolescent frustration expressed due to adult indifference. While the film carries heavy nostalgic value for Generation X, its poignant message remains incredibly pertinent towards today’s youth. Admittedly, Over the Edge is far from perfect, but it attempts to create an understanding of the destructive behaviour of children.
USA | 1979 | 95 MINUTES | 1:85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Arrow Video continues to restore niche classics with an incredible amount of care. For the first time in the UK, Over the Edge is presented on Blu-ray in the original aspect ratio of 1:85:1. As one would expect from Arrow Video, they deliver a beyond satisfactory 1080p transfer. Like most low-budget movies made in the ’70s, the picture boasts a healthy amount of grain complimenting its cinematic veneer. Several blemishes including dust and light scratches are occasionally visible but never distracting. The colour balance of New Granada’s landscape is slightly soft during the daytime exterior scenes. However, primaries are prominent and leap from the screen. Flesh tones remain natural and detailing is adequately strong. The textures and colours of the ‘70s wardrobe offer enough clarity and sharpness to please. Additionally, background details such as Star Wars (1977) posters and music flyers hanging in Carl’s room appear sharp and clearly visible. Once again Arrow has prevailed bringing a forgotten cult-classic back from obscurity.
The only audio option available for Over the Edge is the original uncompressed mono mix with optional English subtitles. Unfortunately, the track offers little in terms of dynamics and surround content. However, its modest design fits the apocalyptic mood of the picture. The dialogue remains crisp and clean with verbal exchanges always easy to understand. Whereas the expertly chosen soundtrack remains front-heavy, frequently turning the movie into a jukebox. Atmospherics during the climax keep things lively with no signs of distortion. Overall it’s a comfortable representation of the movie’s original presentation.
director: Jonathan Kaplan.
writers: Charlie S. Haas & Tim Hunter.
starring: Michael Eric Kramer, Matt Dillon, Pamela Ludwig, Harry Northup, Andy Romano & Ellen Geer.