Monday, March 30, 2015

The Cult Movie Project #4 (of 200) :: DANGER! Children at Play: Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge (1979)

There's a certain age, we've all been through it, where confusion reigns. An age where we're old enough to truly know better but too young (foolish and stubborn and stupid) to care and do what we're not supposed to do anyway, repercussions be damned. A strange age of burgeoning hormones and not fitting in and, most importantly, no real accommodation or outlet to bleed off the steam of these frustrations, boredom and anxiety, resulting in bursts of temper when this internalization mechanism malfunctions or overloads and a tantrum erupts and you lash out at the closest thing available. More often than not this behavior is self-destructive. Other times, it is not. It is also nearly impossible to verbalize these sentiments, and therefore, simply asking what's wrong only makes things worse.

Over the Edge (1979) personifies this volatile period of development as a very loud scream into the night about disaffected youth and disconnected parents. Its origins can be traced to a rash of incidents in the early 1970s in the San Francisco suburb of Foster City, where roaming packs of kids (some as young as nine) were causing a massive amount of property damage and disruptions of services. A planned community built on a landfill, Foster City overlooked a good percentage of its population in its plush, nautical design, which served as the root cause of this revolt. And after reading and gathering several articles on these “Mousepack” crime sprees and the city’s struggles and failures on how to deal with it, Tim Hunter showed them to his former film history student, Charlie Haas, thinking this would make a great exploitation movie they could co-write together.

Haas agreed, and after touring Foster City, a sterile place that “made everyone feel a little disposable” and interviewing several local youths, the two hammered out a script on this new, peculiar form of suburban blight. “The kids were bored, so they committed crimes,” said Hunter. “And they used drugs. And they drank. They told us everything. They were very honest with us.” But these weren’t inner-city slum kids; these kids were white with affluent middle-class parents. And at the heart of the story was the inescapable irony of how a move to this overly conceived (to the point of misconception), clean and safe neighborhood turned these parents’ kids into the very things they’d left the city to escape from in the first place. And while Hunter and Haas’ script kinda skims over the 'why' this happened, it definitely revels in the 'how' it happened. "The only main difference between the film and the article was that our ending was a lot more violent."

The story is fairly simple (the answers are where it gets complicated). Carl (Kramer), a fairly good kid with fairly good parents (Romano, Geer), is fed up with the daily tedium of life for those fifteen-and-under in New Grenada (-- subbing in for Foster City, a cookie-cutter, half-finished, and seemingly demilitarized suburban tract on the edge of nowhere in the scrublands of northern Colorado, and a character all its own). He hangs out with a rowdy crowd of drunks and dopers and vandals (Spano, Fergus) because, again, there is simply nothing else to do except that or hang out at the Rec Center. In-between being hounded by the cops or facing another monotonous day at school, Carl finds some understanding and a budding romance with Cory (Ludwig). But, everything falls apart when a crackdown is ordered and the Rec Center is closed under a false pretext to clean up the town before a visit from outside investors totally backfires, when one of the kids, Richie (Dillon), is accidentally shot for brandishing an unloaded weapon. From there, the violence escalates, culminating in a full-blown, nigh apocalyptic riot at the high school.

Turning the script over to long time family friend and film producer, George Litto, the script was shopped around until it finally found a home at Orion, who committed to their pitch of Rebel Without a Cause '78, but were still skittish for reasons we'll get into in a second. To direct, Litto hired Jonathan Kaplan (Night Call Nurses, Truck Turner, White Line Fever), another protege of Roger Corman's film school, who also worked with Martin Scorcese, which helps to explain the films outstanding editing. As the film progresses, it's easy to see which side Kaplan, Hunter and Haas are on, but, to their credit, they play fair enough with the adults -- these are decent people, even Sgt. Doberman (Northup), facing mounting pressures and scrambled priorities. The film honestly feels like a callback to those old safety screeds / exploitative morality plays of the 1950s, like Corman's own Teenage Doll (1957), Edward Bernd's High School Hellcats (1958) or William Witney's Cool and the Crazy (1958).

One of Orion's major sticking points was the cast of unknowns, which Kaplan insisted on. I think finding real, inexperienced kids was the right choice. All the kids are believable, adding a thick layer of authenticity, especially when you add Kaplan and cinematographer Andrew Davis' industrial, documentary style camerawork, which makes things even more real and helps you glean over the few instances when their novice actors are "acting" a little too hard. (Several unsubstantiated rumors had them committing several felonies, too, getting their cast drunk, all minors, for the party scene. Their charges also made it a nightly habit of trashing the wing of the hotel they were housed in). The film is famous for introducing Matt Dillon, who, I think, shows an immature spark of what was to come but he was trying way too hard to get his Vinnie Barbarino on here. (The true standouts to my eye are Spano and Ludwig -- and Julia Pomeroy, as the counselor and sole adult the kids really trust.) 

Kaplan was also smart enough to listen to his cast. Whenever they were filming a scene and he heard giggling, he'd stop the take and ask if it was too lame and, if so, how to fix the scene or dialogue. And that killer soundtrack? We owe all that to Ludwig, whom Kaplan sought advice from and used whatever was playing on her boom-box between takes.

In the end, though, Over the Edge turned out a little too real for the studio. Caught in the public backlash against the incidents of gang fights at screenings of The Warriors (1978) and Boulevard Nights (1978), Orion made the awkward decision to promote Kaplan's film as a horror movie to distance themselves from that stigmatization, explaining all the zombified teens on the posters and ad-mats during its original release in 1979 (-- a far cry from the I Was a Teenage Mad Max advanced posters), which was extremely limited before the studio basically chickened out and yanked it. Two years later the film was rediscovered and became a critic's darling, earning the official credentials of an overlooked gem, and finally garnered a wider release; but the film never really found its audience until it hit HBO, where it proved very formative to the likes of Kurt Cobain.

I first saw Over the Edge in my early twenties, and hadn't seen it since I bought the DVD nearly ten years ago. On this re-watch, I found myself questioning my own allegiances as things played out between the yuppies and our (snot-nosed) punk anti-heroes, mostly due to the specter of Columbine and Sandy Hook wheedling its way into my brain as the climactic riot at the school broke out. I grew up in the same era, in the same kind of isolation, where there was nothing else to do but watch movies, play video games, drive around, and drink. A lot. And, so, yes, being a kid sucks. But I got news for you, so does being an adult. The lyrics change, but the song remains the same and all that. And there's that moment at the end of the movie, where our main character, who thinks he knows the answer, realizes he knows nothing at all. Welcome to adulthood, kid.

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"Yet despite their chaotic, unstable home lives, those kids know what they're rebelling against, the major reason for their anxiety, frustration, and fury. And it's not their parents -- although they are indirectly responsible for their misery. Their most extreme hatred is reserved for New Grenada itself, partly because of how it has changed their parents (effectively destroying their families). The parents lazily assume that their children are safe and happy in the all-white, upscale town, so they let their kids run free while they spend their own time thinking about money."


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The Fine Print: Over the Edge was watched via the Warner Home Video DVD. Screened as a double-feature with Renee Daalder's Massacre at Central High (1976). Sources: Mike Sack's Oral History of Over the Top at What's the Cult Movie ProjectThat's four down, with 196 to go.

Over the Edge (1979) Orion Pictures / P: George Litto / AP: Robert S. Bremson, Joe Kapp / D: Jonathan Kaplan / W: Charles S. Haas, Tim Hunter / C: Andrew Davis / E: Robert Barrere / M: Sol Kaplan / S: Michael Eric Kramer, Pamela Ludwig, Matt Dillon, Vincent Spano, Tom Fergus, Harry Northup, Andy Romano, Ellen Geer, Julia Pomeroy

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Fine Art of Sequential Credits :: DePatie-Freleng's Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)

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"They're apes! They can speak?!"
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After Warner Bros. boarded up Termite Terrace in 1963, officially bringing an end to its legendary animation department, two of these lay-off casualties, David DePatie and director Friz Freleng, landed on their feet, forming DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, which almost immediately bore fruit when Blake Edwards asked them to do the credits for his new film, The Pink Panther (1963), and its subsequent sequels. And so pleased were they by the end-results of this new frisky feline character, United Artists commissioned them for a series of theatrical shorts; the first of which, The Pink Phink, won an Oscar in 1964. In 1969, these shorts were repackaged and sold to NBC, which began airing them along with some new material as part of there Saturday morning cartoon line-up.

Meantime, 20th Century Fox had there own series that was slowly making its way from the big to the small screen with The Planet of the Apes franchise. And as the 1970s progressed, with the studio seeing diminishing returns at the box-office (-- coinciding with the decreased budgets. Coincidence? I think not --), it was apparent after the fifth (and destined to be the final) installment these films were running on fumes. Turns out a live-action TV series wasn't the answer, either. But while these efforts were floundering to find an audience, Planet of the Apes merchandising was going through the roof: toys, playsets (the Mego line was fantastic), model-kits, books, trading cards, lunch-boxes, t-shirts -- you name it, and 20th Century Fox was asking you to 'Go Ape' over it. And needing something, anything, to anchor it, the studio turned to DePatie-Freleng for an animated version of this future gone completely bananas to milk a few more months out of this toy-aisle bonanza.

Unfortunately, their efforts failed to live up to that amazing pop-art opening credit sequence. Seems there wasn't much of a budget for Return to the Planet of the Apes, either, which went a long way in explaining why it, like the live-action series, only lasted one season. You'd think the freedom of animation would really open things up in adapting Pierre Boulle's La Plan├Ęte des singes (The Monkey Planet); and while there was a token attempt to expand and engage, the series seemed merely content to rehash the plot of the first two films, with three more time-lost astronauts getting their The Fugitive on from their ape tormentors (Bill, Jeff and Judy), cast adrift in the 1970s era of non-violence and "Can't we all just get along" cartoon malaise. Most of the ape players return -- Dr. Zaius, Cornelius and Zira, and a great, new villain in General Urko (voiced by Fred Flinstone himself, Henry Corden), as well as humans Nova and Brent, who wasn't quite as dead as we thought (-- I know he got shot in the head, I know it doesn't make any sense, just roll with it... ) And those underground mutants are still around, too, causing all kinds of trouble.

The animation itself was done on the (dirt) cheap and on the cheat, with static shots and minimal animation that was recycled over and over again. (I think the camera moved and zoomed more than the cels did. And notice how all the dialogue is nearly always read over someone else's reaction to it so the mouth wouldn't have to be animated.) The only thing the series had going for it, really, was Doug Wildey, who oversaw the production and did the best he could with what little he had. Wildey was the brains behind (and did the designs for) Johnny Quest (1964), the greatest animated series of ever, and the Apes cartoon definitely echos that series' look -- a pale, low-toner Xerox copy, sure, but at least they tried. The backgrounds were really quite amazing, and just begging for a proper exploration. (I dug it, anyways.) Alas, it wasn't meant to be.

Wildey also made the apes more advanced, both culturally, architecturally, and militarily. His ambitions were for even more hardware but he ran up against the network's Emulative Clause, which required him to eliminate anything a six-year old child could imitate, which is why the Apes are armed with rifles, but never use them, and a ton of vintage military equipment that only shoot nets -- except for the howitzers, which the networks allowed for some reason. Another plus is the music by Dean Elliot, which incorporates Goldsmith's horn and percussion-heavy beats to great, menacing effect.

I honestly don't remember if this cartoon, or the Power Records, or one of those Go Ape marathons was my first exposure to this franchise, which holds a fond place in my heart. I remember enjoying it when I was a kid, and a recent revisit through the complete series boxset was fairly enjoyable as things really went off the rails as the thirteen episodes progressed, with the dragon, the airplane, the laser cannon, and, yes, in reverence to the forthcoming King Kong remake, a giant gorilla even shows up to fight that dragon in the final episode. You definitely get a sense that there was a lot of potential there for something truly special. They whiffed it, sure, but it's still worth a look for all my fellow Ape completists out there. And if nothing else, it's definitely better than that steaming pile of crap Burton burped-up for the first and rightfully aborted franchise reboot in 2001.

Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) DePatie-Freleng Enterprises :: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation :: National Broadcasting Company (NBC) / P: David H. DePatie, Friz Freleng / AP: Doug Wildey / D: Doug Wildey / W: Larry Spiegel, John Barrett, Jack Kaplan, Bruce Shelly, John Strong / E: Allan R. Pottet, Rick Steward / M: Dean Elliott / S: Austin Stoker, Philippa Harris, Henry Corden, Richard Blackburn, Claudette Nevins, Tom Williams
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