Bruce LaBruce’s Academy of the Underrated: Over the Edge

The latest title in LaBruce's alternative canon is Jonathan Kaplan's 1979 zeitgeist teen drama starring Matt Dillon.

Over the Edge, directed by Jonathan Kaplan, was only one of five studio movies made in 1979 about gangs, including two about Latino gangs (Boulevard Nights and Walk Proud, the latter starring a decidedly non-Latino Robby Benson), one about an Italian gang (The Wanderers), and one about every type of gang that you could imagine, and a few you couldn’t, including an exciting lesbian one (The Warriors). This cluster of gang films expressed a rather apocalyptic youth malaise in the post-Vietnam war era, a disillusionment that was expressed concurrently, and more literally, in the adult cinema world with such films as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, both released in 1978, and Apocalypse Now, released in 1979.

In the film netherworld of B-movies, which often expressed the political discontent of the era most viscerally, two rough-and-tumble directors – Kaplan and Jonathan Demme – emerged from the pack, both mentored by Roger Corman, variously called “The Pope of Pop Cinema” and “The King of the Drive-In.” Corman’s New World Pictures produced Demme’s first three films, B-movie classics Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), and Fighting Mad (1976), and Kaplan’s first two, Night Call Nurses (1972) and The Student Teachers (1973), both, like Demme’s Caged Heat, verging on softcore porn. Kaplan followed up with two gritty Blaxploitation films, The Slams (1973) and Truck Turner (1974), both also under the aegis of Corman companies. It was with this heady pedigree that Kaplan took on his 1979 “gang” project, Over the Edge (actually about disaffected suburban white youth), a movie masterpiece equally as apocalyptic, in its way, as Walter Hill’s The Warriors, which also went on to garner a cult following. Unbelievably, rather than cash in on the negative publicity surrounding violent incidents at screenings of the other gang films that year, Orion Pictures shelved Over the Edge for two years. Only after a successful run on HBO in 1981 did the film gain some critical success and a modest theatrical release.

Over the Edge undoubtedly became a touchstone for a slew of eighties anarchic high-school teen rebellion films, and in 1991 inspired Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, with Kurt Cobain citing the movie as its main inspiration, and stating that “it pretty much defined my whole personality. It was really cool. Total anarchy.” The film was also, notably, the big screen debut of Matt Dillon at the tender age of 14, who, fittingly, according to legend, only went to the audition for the film in order to skip school. Before turning permanently to television, Kaplan went on to direct a number of features, including two great, gritty feminist films, Heart Like a Wheel (1983) and The Accused (1988) (for which Jodie Foster won her first Oscar), both tapping into the director’s B-movie roots.

Over the Edge was inspired by the true story of teens run amok in a planned community in Foster City, California in the early seventies, although the film was shot in a Denver suburb not far from the Columbine community where the infamous high-school massacre would take place in 1999. Indeed, it’s been reported that for research members of the production team of Kaplan’s movie spent time with truant officers that patrolled the Columbine Strip Mall across from the school, lending retroactive credence to this apocalyptic vision of bored suburban America youth.

The film begins on the sign for the fictionalized town of New Granada (“tomorrow’s city … today,” contemptuously referred to by the kids in the movie as “New Granola”) as rolling text informs us that it’s based on true incidents of vandalism that occurred in a modern community of condominiums and townhouses where a quarter of the population was 15 years old or younger. We are immediately introduced to said teens at the local youth centre as a very young teen girl (Kristina Hanson) wearing a T-shirt that proclaims “Sex Bitch” tells the harrowing story of the mother of her boyfriend walking in on the two of them “stoned out of our minds” with her shirt unbuttoned to her waist. Richie (Matt Dillon) overhears her tale and leers down toward her crotch; she fends him off by calling him a “sex pervert.” The film immediately establishes the young teenagers as sexually precocious and already world-weary, regularly imbibing all manner of drugs and booze. Dillon, with his feathered hair, green, midriff-baring crop top, and Western belt sporting a marijuana leaf buckle, is exceptionally sexual in his style and speech, Kaplan not shying away in the least from the thorny notion of teen sexuality.

“He just does that so people won’t think he’s queer,” says Sex Bitch Lisa’s female interlocutor, Marcy, referring to his perving on her friend. And so begins, by my count, the first of 10 homophobic or homophobic-adjacent references in the first 37 minutes of the film! As a homosexual, I am not offended in the least by this statistic, as the movie is only being true to the zeitgeist of the time, and attesting to the homosexual panic that courses through the veins of all randy young teenagers for whom most options are still on the table. Meanwhile, two teen boys (Vincent Spano as Mark, also in his film debut, is one of them) shoot the windshield out of a cop car with a BB gun from an overpass on the freeway and escape on their bikes, passing Richie and his best friend, Carl (Michael Kramer), as they flee. The cop, aptly named Doberman, in pursuit, mistakes Carl and Richie for the freeway perpetrators, the two innocent teens having hidden in a ditch upon his arrival. “Any time you two finish making out in there I’d like to talk to you,” says Doberman (homophobic line #2), who evidently also has gay sex on his mind. “Any reason you’re hiding out in there?” he asks. “Yeah, we heard you were horny, man,” replies smart-mouthed Richie with homophobic line #3. As he frisks them, the cop finds a knife in Richie’s pocket, and he asks him how long the blade is. “Three inches. Almost as big as your dick,” sasses back Richie with homophobic-adjacent line #4, and, as the cop hustles him into the back seat of his car, “Told you he was horny,” with #5. The subsequent scenes of their parents driving them home from the police station establish Richie as working class, his single mom sympathizing with him against the cops, and Carl as middle class, his parents decidedly on the side of the authorities. Richie returns to his slummy apartment, Carl to his upscale townhouse, retreating to his cozy bedroom to listen to “Surrender” by Cheap Trick on his expensive headphones.

The song continues over the subsequent scene of Carl and Richie arriving at school on their bikes the next day, passing graffiti that says, “Jocks are Fags” (homophobic reference #6). The high-school scenes in the film are portrayed with remarkable verisimilitude, deftly capturing the random acting out of bored youth against authority. Blond-haired Claude (Tom Fergus), wearing overalls over a striped yellow rugby shirt, tells Carl he’s more than ready for the test they’re about to take because he “just did some speed at breakfast.” The speed, it turns out, was acid, and Claude starts freaking out when the test turns out to be writing an essay on Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a delightful vignette by Kaplan. At assembly, the principal announces a curfew owing to the incident on the freeway the previous day. The students then cheer as they are shown an anti-vandalism film, foreshadowing the anarchy to come.

After the kids get drunk and stoned at a playground at night, accompanied by the Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” a teen theme of the time, they head to a rowdy house party, the scene introduced by a boy taking a bite out of a beer can. The hand-held camera enters the house as if it’s one of the kids, making the emotional identification of the director clear. Carl interrupts Mark making out on a couch in the basement with Cory (Pamela Ludwig), the girl he fancies, and Mark warns him not to inform on him. After the party is busted by the cops, Mark and his henchman beat up Carl in the playground to reinforce their threat, a strangely poetic scene without sound save for the off-kilter soundtrack music by Sol Kaplan. “You just remember to keep your mouth shut, faggot,” Mark says finally (homophobic line #7).

The next day Carl shows up at the rec centre sporting cuts and bruises on his face. “Was it the disgusting people from Planet Pork?” asks Lisa, indicating an era when cops were routinely vilified, not revered. “What are you, into brass knuckles and baseball bats?” asks Claude, again indicating the very adult sexual imagination of the kids. Doberman the Cop arrives to shut down the rec centre in his quest to make the kids disappear during a visit by some Texas millionaire developers who are planning to build an industrial park on the sites where youth recreation facilities were promised. When Julia (Julia Pomeroy, who ran a youth rec centre in real life), the cool supervisor of the centre, and the only sympathetic adult in the film, tells him he has no right to be there, Doberman asks whose permission he does need, to which Richie replies, “Ours, faggot!” (Homophobic line #8). The cops bust Claude for drug possession as a pretext to close the centre, inspiring Richie to jump on top of the cop car, a prelude to the impending anti-cop apocalypse. “All they got in Texas is queers and steers,” he says a few moments later (Homophobic line #9), referring to the evil land-grabbing developers. As in many films of the seventies, before Hollywood capitulated completely to Real Estate Porn, capitalist exploitation was still an enemy of the people, and rebellion against authority was the default. The populist appeal of Hollywood cinema from its inception to the late seventies, when working class values were often revered at the expense of the ruling classes, which were more often than not met with disdain and suspicion, would find its last authentic expression in films of the late seventies like Over the Edge.

As a realistic metaphor for the mindless exploitation of the capitalist overlords, Richie, Carl, Cory and her best friend Abby (Kim Kliner) retreat to a ghost town of condominiums that were half-built but never finished, the boys referring to one of the skeletal units as “our condo.” (“Yeah, I bet you two just got married,” ripostes Cory with the final homophobic-adjacent line, #10). Cory and Abby have just committed a B&E, a gun and bullets part of their booty. Cory does a sexy dance with the gun, play-shooting at her suitor, Carl, and the gun accidentally goes off. For a moment it seems that the boy has really been shot, but the kids just laugh it off, their recklessness and casualness about death symptomatic of their alienation. The two couples part (Richie taking the gun), in a beautiful wide two-shot at sunset, Kaplan and his cinematographer, Andrew Davis, taking every opportunity to find the improbable beauty of this teenage wasteland throughout the film. After the six main teenagers engage in some target practice with the stolen gun, they wander aimlessly down a deserted paved road, a strange, adolescent echo of a famous scene in another countercultural film of the seventies, Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), in which six characters walk down a similarly paved country road in almost the exact same configuration.

In the second half of Over the Edge, the narrative cleverly sets up the final, infamous teen apocalypse. After the teens almost kill the local rich kid drug-dealer by throwing him into a man-made stream beside his luxury townhouse (he can’t swim), the cops close the rec centre for good, fire Julia, and try to track down Richie and Carl, who have taken it on the lam. A wild car-chase leads to a Western-style showdown between Richie and Doberman in which Richie is shot and killed, witnessed by Carl. The film plays almost like a Western in spots, or occasionally a noir, as in the scene in which Carl calls the mute kid, Johnny, to find out if Richie is really dead, the kid poignantly tapping once on the phone to indicate yes. After making amends with Mark, who has been living alone in a shack beside the dirt-bike track after getting kicked out of the house by his parents, Carl spends the night in “his” condo with Cory, the pair sleeping together for the first time. Cory leaves early in the morning, silhouetted against a spectacular sunrise worthy of an epic Hollywood Western.

In the grand finale, the kids descend on the high school where the parents are hunkered down deciding what to do about their wasted children. As Doberman speaks, Richie breaks in through the roof and lets in all the other kids, who quietly lock their parents and teachers and the cops inside the auditorium, creating an impromptu jail. Then they proceed to trash the place, vandalizing and burning and looting everything in sight. The electricity is short-circuited, leaving the terrified adults, literally and metaphorically, in the dark. The teens break into the cop cars and start shooting everything up, gleefully blowing up cars. Here is where Kaplan’s B-movie roots really kick into gear, the director creating a spectacular landscape of destruction, an almost sci-fi terrain of chaos and terror.

In the midst of all the confusion, Doberman forces Carl into his cherry top and tells him he’s taking him to jail. One of the kids shoots the tire out of the cop car, which careens spectacularly, in slow motion, into the rec centre, the very locus of the repressed teen sexual energy underlying the entire film, including the repressed homosexual urges, as previously enumerated, that fuel their rage. Carl escapes the car wreck just in time, leaving Doberman the Cop to perish in an impressive, over-the-top explosion that only a B-movie alumnus would dare to stage.

In the final scene, the battered teens emerge from the police station and board a bus to juvenile detention, accompanied by the song “Ooh Child” sung by Valerie Carter. Apparently Kaplan originally wanted to end the film with the song “Baba O’Riley” by the Who, which would have been appropriate, but maybe a bit too obvious, considering its refrain “it’s only teenage wasteland.” It’s hard now to imagine a more emotionally affecting song than “Ooh Child” to deliver the final message, a sincere, hopeful ballad accompanying the kids in the bus, their long hair being blown around by the wind: “Ooh child, things are gonna get easier / Ooh child, things will be brighter.” It always has me in tears as the credits roll.

Bruce LaBruce is a filmmaker, writer, photographer and artist based in Toronto, Canada. Recently there have been retrospectives of his films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and at MoMA in New York City. His latest feature, The Misandrists, will be released in 2018.