50 Movies for 50 States: Week 7 — Colorado, Film — Over the Edge

Time for a road trip across the good ol’ USA, one film at a time.

Week 7 — Colorado

Over the Edge (1979), director Jonathan Kaplan, writers Charles S. Haas and Tim Hunter, with Matt Dillon, Michael Eric Kramer, Pamela Ludwig

Unless you’re into outdoor sports, there’s shit to do in Colorado. That seems to be a reoccurring theme in much of television and cinema which feature the Rocky Mountain state as its setting and does not involves settlers and cannibalism.  Consequently, when there’s nothing to do — whether it be prison or Saturday detention a la The Breakfast Club — there’s bound to be a few individuals looking to stir up some excitement.

The best example of a television show or movie in which Colorado is portrayed as a bastion of nothing with insanity as its resulting consequence, of course, is the TV show South Park. Through 14 or so seasons, the fictional town of South Park has been invaded by aliens, giant guinea pigs and Mecha-Streisand — and yet, nothing really ever changes. Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman always wind up in the same spot they were in when the show began, standing around waiting for the school bus to arrive. Would Eric Cartman really have taken the time to plan the murder of Scott Tenorman’s parents, not to mention cook them into chili and feed them to their son, had there been a rec center, YMCA, video arcade (do they still have those?) or skate park (or these?) in his little — in the words of the South Park movie — “redneck, po-dunk, white bread” town? Probably. Anyone who watches South Park knows Cartman is a sociopath. Then again, he’s also a cartoon.

Something like the April 20, 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, on the other hand, is no joke; but it’s bound to happen when you’ve got the potent combination of easy access to firearms, teen angst, and two loners with serious “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” attitudes. It also helps to have lots of free time to plan a massacre. I’m not saying that the “Columbine Massacre” would not have happened had the shooters grown up in a major metropolitan area — let’s say New York City for example — and always had something fun to do rather than sit around and draw up blueprints for the deadliest school shooting ever. I’m not saying that 13 people would still be alive today had Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had more than just their small circle of friends to turn to for support when they were picked on by the jocks and other assholes. Clearly, you have to be fucked in the head to do what Harris and Klebold did — however, I would guess that more than half of the world’s population is fucked in the head in some way, but not everyone has the will and general contempt for humanity to carry out a mass shooting spree. What I am saying is the majority of school shootings do happen in places like Littleton, Colorado — little slices of Americana tucked away within the good ol’ US of A. That’s a fact, and if you think there’s no connection — you’re wrong.

Which brings us to this week’s movie.

When I worked as a clerk at a little mom and pop movie chain called Blockbuster Video, my boss — the store manager — told me about this movie called Over the Edge. He described the plot as a bunch of kids go ape shit and blow up a small town. At the time I didn’t think much of it. Maybe I wasn’t impressed with the title, the plot or the fact that the movie was over 20 years old. Maybe I was still a young punk (This was the late 90s. I was in my early 20s) and too proud to take movie recommendations from a 40-something year old glorified video store clerk. So I forgot all about Over the Edge.

Since that time I’ve developed a bit of what you could call an obsession with 70s cinema. So when the time came to write about Colorado, I went through my typical practice of using Google to find a few lists of movies set in Colorado. That’s when Over the Edge came up again. I thought back to my boss’s recommendation. When I saw the soundtrack to the movie included Cheap Trick and The Ramones, two of my favorite bands — in addition to The Cars and Jimi Hendrix — that’s when I was sold.

Tim, you were right. I should have listened to you. Over the Edge is incredible.

Over the Edge opens up with a crawl telling you that the movie is based on real events. I usually take these claims with just a bit of skepticism, so I looked into this. Sure enough, the movie was “inspired” by true events that took place in the town of Foster City, California in the early 1970s. At the time, the town — a planned community — was suffering from a high rate of juvenile crime. A reporter with The San Francisco Examiner wrote a sensationalized piece on the epidemic, dubbing the kiddie gangs “Mouse Packs”. I haven’t seen any evidence that these Mouse Packs did any more than run amuck and commit random acts of vandalism. Still, it got the adults of Foster City in a panic.

Beginning with the opening credits, we get some sprawling shots of the vast nothingness which is Western Colorado. A sign welcomes us to “New Granada.” We see rows of cookie cutter houses. We’re then taken to a youth center where we meet some of the movie’s teenage protagonists, including a 14-year-old Matt Dillon. The kids, a mix of Caucasian and white, are shooting the shit about sex and drugs. A kid wearing a Rush t-shirt is reprimanded for bringing what looks like a 40 oz of malt liquor into the center, while a blonde-haired kid who looks like he’s about 12-years-old talks about being “stoned out of his mind.”

Over the Edge Print by Patch Keyes Illustration/Design (www.patchdkeyes.blogspot.com)

We are then taken to a highway overpass where a kid wearing a coon-skin cap is aiming a BB gun at the cars passing underneath. He fires a shot at a cop car, hitting the front window. The kid with the BB gun and another kid with him speed off laughing on their bikes to the tune of Cheap Trick’s “Hello There”, which I know best as being the opening song to the video game Rock Band 2. Judging by the way the two kids celebrate their random act of vandalism, you would think that the shot from the BB gun caused the cop car to flip over and explode. This is not the case. Instead, the police officer quickly slams on the breaks. He jumps out of the car, weapon drawn, and radios for back-up.

I guess you could say this scene at the overpass is the “shot heard round the world” that leads to  the inevitable teenage uprising which this movie promises. In response to having his windshield busted, the cop takes out his frustration by arresting a couple of random teens (including Dillon’s character). Later, the teens get their hands on a gun. You never find out where the gun came from exactly — it just sort of gets thrown into the plot. Mr. Dillon eventually takes possession of the gun, which leads to him being shot dead when he pulls it on a police officer. The teen’s death, combined with the closing of the youth center, causes the teenagers of New Granada to finally lose it. While the parents of the town are at a meeting to discuss the “juvenile problem” at the local school, the kids of the town turn the tables on the adults by locking them in the building. Then, while the adults can just watch helplessly, the kids proceed to break shit. Many things catch fire and explode.

The riot is the centerpiece of Over the Edge, but doesn’t come until well into the movie. Fortuantly, there’s more to the movie than just the ‘splosions. Leading up to the big blow-up is plenty of time spent immersing the viewer in the town of New Granada, so that when the shit does hit the fan, you understand why. While the self-involved parents and other adults spend considerable time working to turn the community into a yuppie utopia, the teenagers  embark on a seemingly never-ending quest to get drunk, get laid and get into trouble. There’s a bit of brooding, but there really are no Holden Caulfields here. It’s just teenagers enjoying being teenagers. All the kid actors are extremely believable, due to the fact that director Jonathan Kaplan (Project X) made a conscious decision to cast real teens rather than adults pretending to be teens. Matt Dillon was 14-years-old when he appeared in the movie. The casting works, although I’m willing to bet that the movie wouldn’t have been half as controversial if Kaplan had used adult actors. There’s just something uncomfortable seeing teenagers behaving in such primal fashion. I guess it made people so uncomfortable that it was difficult to find anyone willing to distribute Over the Edge at the time of its release, despite being financed by Orion Pictures. Eventually it had a limited run. It now lives on as a cult classic. One of its biggest fans was Kurt Cobain, who drew inspiration from the movie for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video.

I started off this column on a relatively serious note. What I was getting at was that, at the very heart of Over the Edge, there is a good point to be made about how kids need guidance and positive outlets for their youthful energy. If that’s the message that the screenwriters were trying to get across, it’s a message that still needs to be heard loud and clear. From the perspective of the adults, the fear that Over the Edge builds on is the fear that there’s more of them (the younger generation) than there are of us, not to mention that they’re younger, quicker and more motivated. So it’s best to keep them penned in or ignore the problem altogether. Sadly, this attitude has largely not changed since the movie’s release.

It’s possible though that I and others have made more of this movie’s “message” than the filmmakers intended. Like any good exploitation movie, Over the Edge provides visceral thrills by the truckload. Yet, it manages to show a lot more restraint than you would expect. Sure, by the time the movie’s over, the kids have caused a whole lot of property damage, but hardly anyone is really hurt. One kid is killed, of course, and another character is killed in revenge for the first killing — but we’re not talking a massacre by any stretch of the imagination. You would think that if the filmmakers were going for straight exploitation, they would have gone further over-the-top — further over-the-edge. They really don’t.

Also, the movie sort of ends of a down note uncharacteristic for a typical exploitation flick. The last shot of the film is the teenagers leaving on a bus, presumably being sent away to a juvenile facility of sorts, referred to throughout the movie as “the top of the hill.” The song played in this scene and over the closing credits is “Ooh Child” as sung by Valerie Carter. “Ooh Child, things are gonna get easier.” This is a complete 180 degrees from the rock score prevalent throughout the rest of the movie. Kaplan seems to be leaving you with the question: “Was it worth it?” Certainly the teenagers are glad to have, at least for one night, raised hell. You still can’t help but wonder what happens next? The more predictable ending would have had the teens driving off into the sunset, the town of New Granada burning behind them. Ending the movie seemingly on a question mark was a bold decision on the part of the director.

It’s films and filmmakers that take chances that stand out — and this movie definitely stands out. Whether it be its cast of teenage actors, its general mood of restlessness coupled with constant oppression or its spirit of anarchy, Over the Edge makes you want to break stuff. It’s up to the viewer to decide when the smoke has cleared whether they want to feel guilty for the destruction they’ve caused.

YouTube links:

* Trailer

* “A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid.”

* Tripping acid + school assembly = good times

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