Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Screenplay: Charles S. Haas (as Charlie Haas), Tim Hunter
Starring: Michael Eric Kramer, Pamela Ludwig, Matt Dillon, Harry Northup, Andy Romano, Ellen Geer, Tom Fergus, Tiger Thompson
Running Time: 95 mins
Back in 1973, screenwriting buddies Charlie Haas and Tim Hunter came across a newspaper article in the San Francisco Examiner entitled “Mousepacks: Kids on a Crime Spree” by Bruce Koon and James A. Finefrock. It covered a series of incidents in the modern, largely middle-class community of Foster City, California. With little for young people to do in the city, the teenagers grew bored and vandalism was rife. The problems culminated in a large gang of kids gatecrashing a PTA meeting to demand changes in the city.
Haas and Hunter believed the story would make a great exploitation film, so set out to write a script. Over the course of several years, they visited Foster City and interviewed kids, youth leaders, parents and the police, learning more about the situation there as research.
The pair of writers eventually finished off their script and tried to get backing to make it with Hunter as director. The newly established Orion Pictures picked it up as one of their first productions but didn’t want a first-time director helming it. Hunter was good friends with Jonathan Kaplan, a fellow son of a blacklisted filmmaker (making them known as ‘red diaper’ babies), and suggested him. With the young Kaplan’s 1975 film, White Line Fever, being a surprise hit, Orion agreed and production got underway on ‘Mousepacks’.
The shoot, which used many teenage non-actors and took place in Denver, Colorado instead of the intended Foster City (due to child labour laws), went pretty smoothly and the film was ready for release in 1979. However, the producers got cold feet after bad publicity and a spate of incidents in theatres surrounding teenage ‘gang movies’ such as The Warriors and Boulevard Nights. They effectively shelved the newly retitled Over the Edge (it was known as ‘On the Edge’ during most of the production but got changed one last time at the end of post-production), only giving it a very small release.
However, two years later, in 1981, Over the Edge was given a special screening at the Public Theatre in New York, that attracted enough attention to bring renewed interest in the film. In the years following that, Over the Edge also got played a lot on cable in the US and gradually became somewhat of a cult classic, further cemented when Kurt Cobain named it one of his favourite films.
This now quite highly regarded film is getting the Special Edition Blu-ray treatment from Arrow Video. I’m a fan of teenage coming-of-age movies, but hadn’t got around to watching Over the Edge yet, so decided to give it a shot.
The film is based on the gist of the original newspaper article, in that, it’s set in a newly developed middle-class community (here named New Granada) where the teenagers living there have little to do other than hang out in a youth centre, drink, take drugs and get into trouble. The adults in the town do little to tackle the problem. They’re too concerned with attracting developers to invest in the city that had been hit by the recession a couple of years back.
Our central characters are two friends, Carl (Michael Eric Kramer), the intelligent son of Cadillac salesman Fred Willat (Andy Romano), and Richie (Matt Dillon), a rebellious teen with little hope for the future. The pair get unfairly arrested by local cop Doberman (Harry Northup), who wanted them to talk about who shot his car with an air rifle, causing a road traffic accident.
Meanwhile, Home Owners Association president Jerry Cole (Richard Jamison) is arranging with Fred to butter up some visiting Texan developers. They don’t want the troublesome teenagers causing problems, so foolishly decide to shut the youth centre for the day. When this backfires, causing a couple of incidents that send the Texans packing, Cole and Doberman get the centre shut down indefinitely.
Carl and Richie get into more trouble after they come across Cory (Pamela Ludwig) and Abby (Kim Kliner), who’ve ‘found’ a gun. Carl has the hots for Cory, and the quartet hang out. They use the gun to scare a young drug dealer, Tip (Eric Lalich), who they believe ratted on their friend, which had led to the arrest that caused the youth centre to shut down.
After Tip’s mum calls the police, Carl and Richie go on the run but don’t get far, leading to an incident that, indeed, tips tensions ‘over the edge’.
I was blown away by Over the Edge. For one, I was amazed by how ahead of its time it felt, or timeless in fact. Yes, it has a late-seventies vibe to it, with its naturalistic look and the fashions of course. However, the depiction and treatment of children in the film feels fresh.
For one, Kaplan made the wise decision to cast actual teenagers in the film. Most movies up to that point, and many still to this day, cast twenty-somethings as kids, which is never convincing. Most teenage films of the 70s were ‘gang pictures’ too, focussing on stories of kids vs kids, whereas Over the Edge puts its young protagonists on an equal footing. It’s about universal problems faced by teenagers in these types of areas. Although there aren’t as many so-called ‘latchkey kids’ these days, there’s still an aspect of older generations not understanding the ‘youth of today’, causing friction and the wrong type of support. I also appreciated how the adults aren’t made out to be two-dimensional villains either. You can see where they’re coming from too, even if it’s clear they’re a key source of the problem.
In casting largely non-actors for its young cast too (including a 14-year-old Matt Dillon, who the filmmakers just found bunking out of class in a school they were scouting out), Kaplan creates a wonderfully authentic community on film. Allowing the teenagers to adapt dialogue to fit their own way of speaking, it really does feel like they’re good friends just hanging out together. In this sense, as well as a remarkably similar use of listening to 70s rock on large headphones as a form of release, Over the Edge feels very similar to Dazed and Confused. Reportedly Richard Linklater is, indeed, a fan of the film.
Speaking of listening to 70s rock music, the soundtrack to Over the Edge is fantastic. Again, Kaplan spoke to the kids themselves about what sort of music they listened to. Because of this, there are great tracks from then up-and-coming bands such as Cheap Trick and The Cars that you believe the teens would be listening to.
Jonathan Kaplan’s dad, Sol Kaplan (who also composed the excellent score for the recently reviewed The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), provided the score that plays between the rock tracks. It’s also very good, bringing some orchestral weight and poignant flourishes throughout.
The ‘hanging out’ atmosphere of the first half of the film makes way for a more dramatic second half, which culminates in a literally explosive finale. At once wish-fulfilment for teenagers and a warning to parents who don’t listen to their kids, the climax is quite a departure from the relatively subtle initial portion of the film. The build-up is effectively drawn though, so it feels naturally developed yet devastatingly powerful.
There’s a strange calm to the coda following this though. Reportedly the song that plays over this, ‘Ooh Child’, sung by Valerie Carter, was not Kaplan’s first choice and was imposed on him by the producer. However, I think it works well. The lyrics perhaps hammer home the message implied in that closing scene, but the mood and feel of the tune work perfectly, emphasising the cathartic relief of what lead up to that point.
I could prattle on for ages about it, but I’ll close by simply saying Over the Edge really is a remarkable film. A groundbreaking and incendiary youth movie classic, it brilliantly captures the growing tension between teens and adults in a suburban area, as well as the joys of being a kid, hanging out with friends, chasing girls/boys and getting in trouble. I’m gutted I hadn’t seen it sooner, but I’ll certainly be watching it again.
Over the Edge is out on 31st May on Blu-ray, released by Arrow Video. An ‘O-card’ version is available exclusively at the Arrow store. The picture is a touch soft and the grain is fairly heavy, but this is likely as it was originally shot. Lower budget 70s films tend to have that look, though IMDB still lists it as being shot in 35mm. I’ve used screengrabs from the disc to give an idea of quality. Audio is strong too, with the fantastic soundtrack coming through nicely.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
– High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray™ transfer
– Original uncompressed mono audio
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Archive commentary by director Jonathan Kaplan, producer George Litto and writers Tim Hunter & Charlie Haas
– New commentary by star Michael Kramer and journalist Mike Sacks
– Isolated music and effects track
– Wide Streets + Narrow Minds, an exclusive multi-part retrospective documentary with newly recorded interviews with cast and crew, including Kaplan, Hunter, Haas, talent scouts Jane Bernstein and Linda Feferman, production designer Jim Newport, stars Matt Dillon, Michael Kramer, Harry Northup, Vincent Spano, Pamela Ludwig, Tom Fergus, Julia Pomeroy and others
– Full post-film Q&A from a 2010 screening at the Walter Reade Theater in New York, featuring Litto, Hunter, Haas, Bernstein, Northup, Kramer, Ludwig, Fergus and Pomeroy
– Excerpts from the Projection Booth podcast episode on the film, including discussion by Mike White, Leon Chase and Heather Drain, plus interviews with Haas, Hunter, Spano, Northup and co-star Andy Romano
– Welcome to New Granada, the full “rock operetta” by DRATS!!! inspired by the film
– Text materials, including original production notes and the 2009 VICE oral history by Mike Sacks
– Destruction: Fun or Dumb?, the full educational short excerpted within the film, in high definition
– US theatrical trailer and TV spots
– UK VHS promo
– German theatrical trailer
– Extensive image galleries, including the original Mousepacks screenplay
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sister Hyde
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing by Kim Morgan and Henry Blyth, and the original San Francisco Examiner article that inspired the film
Wow, it’s an incredibly extensive set of features. Where to start…
The commentary with Kaplan, producer George Litto and writers Tim Hunter & Charlie Haas is excellent. It’s filled with interesting facts and anecdotes about the production. There are a couple of silent patches in the mid-section but these aren’t too long so bear with it.
The Michael Kramer track is strong too. He’s backed up by journalist Mike Sacks who helps keep things moving along and conversational. There are plenty more anecdotes and illuminating details about the production here.
The Projection Booth podcast episode is played down in the blurb as being just ‘excerpts from’ but it runs over the whole film twice! A such, it’s essentially like having two more commentaries. The first portion has the presenters discussing the film from an analytical approach, allowing it to stand clearly apart from the other commentaries. It contains some thoughtful and affectionate insights into the film. The second portion of the episode is made up of an excellent series of interviews. Many of the contributors are heard elsewhere in the set, but these lengthy, less edited interviews offer some warm and illuminating recollections of the production of Over the Edge as well as a discussion of their careers in general. I particularly enjoyed Harry Northup and Andy Romano’s contributions.
The feature-length ‘Wide Streets + Narrow Minds’ documentary is fantastic. It brings in a huge number of contributors, even people like the guy who wrote the original newspaper article. Though some of the stories are repeated elsewhere, this is a well-produced and detailed collection of all the best anecdotes and behind the scenes accounts, so is a great coverall for those without the patience to listen to all of the commentaries.
The Q&A is very informative and enjoyable too. Dillon and Kaplan are missing but they both provide messages that are read out.
The ‘Welcome to New Granada’ “rock operetta” is pretty cool, offering a psychedelic grunge/garage rock interpretation of key scenes and themes of the film.
The inclusion of the full ‘Destruction: Fun or Dumb?’ film within a film is a lot of fun too. I thought it was a spoof of information films of the time but it’s actually real! Plus it’s got a hilarious “either it’s fun or just dumb” theme tune.
Even the text extras are surprisingly good. The promo material repeats a lot of what we’ve seen already but you also get the original synopsis, which shows how the film was initially planned. It’s only subtly different but all the worse for it, feeling a touch more forced and sensational. It shows that Kaplan knew how to turn the original idea into something special.
The final text extra is a VICE article that’s pretty lengthy, so offers a lot of value.
So, a truly superb release of a fantastic film. Pick this up as soon as you can. You won’t regret it.