The film: Three O’Clock High (1987)
The Principals: Casey Siemaszko (Jerry Mitchell), Richard Tyson (Buddy Revell), Mitch Pileggi (“The Duker” – not a reference to poop), Jeffrey Tambor (Mr. Rice), Anne Ryan (Franny Perrins), John P. Ryan (Mr. O’Rourke). Directed by Phil Joanou. Surprise Executive Producer – Aaron Spelling. Wait, what?
The Premise: Jerry Mitchell is a semi-typical eighties high-schooler from every other eighties teen comedy – does well in school without being a stereotypical nerd, has exactly two friends and an annoying younger sister, works for the school paper, and manages the school store. This time, the standard intro status quo is upset when a new student shows up to school – complete with the cloud of infamy billowing around him. Seems Buddy Revell has a rep that should generally put most kids in juvie… or prison. Jerry accidentally gets on Buddy’s bad side when he attempts to interview him for the school paper. This leads to Buddy challenging Jerry to a fight after school, evoking the title of the film. Several attempts are made by Jerry to get out of the fight, with each attempt ending in amusingly ridiculous and disastrous ways. By the time three O’clock hits, Jerry has no choice but to take on the much bigger Buddy Revell. By the end of the film a torch is passed, and Jerry now finds himself at the beginning of a path similar to the one that begat the legend that is Buddy Revell. Also, Yeardley Smith will never not sound like Lisa Simpson.
Is It Good? Despite the fact that the movie was a box office failure when it originally debuted in theaters, I will argue that it certainly is. This is one of those “hidden gem” films that found its audience on cable, VHS and DVD long after it faded from theaters. And I think it’s cult following is well-earned. There’s a mad genius at work with this film. Sure, it covers most of the basic tropes that were in every other “teen” comedy that came out of the eighties, but this movie executes each of them with a slightly surrealistic bent laced with a bit of crazy. The director’s use of odd camera angles and sped-up, overdone zooms add an extra madcap quality to the events unfolding on the screen. I hate to use the word zaniness in a non-mocking manner since that word is used by no one who isn’t lame in this day and age, but there’s a zaniness to the way the film is edited and shot. And it doesn’t feel lame. In fact, it makes the movie a lot of fun to watch.
To help with the offbeat vibe running throughout a film like this, you obviously need your factory-produced quirky characters. And Three O’Clock High does not hold back. But while a lot of eighties comedies would often throw in strange or unusual character simply for a gimmick or just to highlight just how strange they are against their cinematic world, the characters in Three O’Clock High feel organic. I know that’s strange to say considering how off the wall the film is, but the entire high school world this movie runs in is off kilter. So, it only makes sense that almost your entire cast is a little strange to various degrees. They are a product of their environment. In short, they fit. In fact, only two characters in the entire movie really play it straight (three until Mr. O’Rourke delivers one of the best lines of dialogue at the end of the film): Philip Baker Hall (who plays the detective investigating a robbery at the school store), and Jeffrey Tambor (which is a crime considering how funny this man has proven himself to be in shows like Arrested Development).
Over all, director Phil Joanou managed to make a pretty fun flick that never stagnates or gets buried in its own wackiness. The pacing is consistent and it almost feels like a trip through a funhouse. If anything, it’s almost like he made a documentary of what most of us in our late thirties and early forties remember high school to be like. Not bad for a guy who hasn’t really given us much beyond a few U2 docs, State of Grace, and that Punisher short Thomas Jane was pimping at Comic-Con last year.
Is It Worth a Look? I’m actually surprised you haven’t already watched it since I said how good it was up above. It’s like I don’t even know you anymore. So yeah – it’s definitely worth a look. Sure, it has the stink of eighties datedness all over it, but you really don’t notice once the coaster gets over that first hill. I think even the youngers would enjoy it, since a lot of the themes addressed in the film are universal. Three O’Clock High is essentially candy – a colourful, flavourful, delicious, guilty, rotten-your-teeth-til-diabeetus-sets-in treat.
And there’s one more element to this movie that I just discovered on my latest viewing that made me love it even more. I’ve probably seen this movie a couple dozen times in my lifetime since I first stumbled onto it during its original cable lifespan. There’s a very subtle character study going on throughout the film that I somehow missed every single time, and it ties into the emphasis on reputation that bookends the film. The movie starts off with the camera panning and moving past several students as they all share rumours they’ve heard about how mean and nasty Buddy Revell is. Now, we’re meant to laugh them off as over exaggeration for the most part, especially when after (spoiler alert) Jerry wins the fight at the end and we see that the students are now gossiping over exaggerated rumours about Jerry. But therein lies a clever bit of subtle character development. Throughout the film, we see Buddy doing things that don’t seem particularly felon-like. At one point he’s reading quietly in the library. At another point Jerry discovers that Buddy can do algebra. I think the underlying message the film is trying to communicate is that once upon a time Buddy was just like Jerry. Maybe something similar to what transpires in the film happened to him, and that’s how he became this psychotic tower of touch-rage. At the same time, throughout the movie we witness Jerry starting a downward spiral as his efforts to get out of fighting slide farther towards being criminal. I meant it when I said in the synopsis that a torch has been passed at the end of the film. I think what we witness as the credits roll is Jerry at the beginning of his path to becoming a new Buddy. This subtle and clever detail adds an extra layer to the film, and gives me a newfound love for it. It’s also another good reason why this deserves a look.
Random Anecdotes: Barry Sonnenfeld did the cinematography for Three O’Clock High. He would go on to direct the first two Addams Family films, as well as the Men in Black series and the critically acclaimed Get Shorty.
The film was based on the real-life, high school experiences of the two writers, whose names have been withheld to protect no one.
Tangerine Dream did practically every movie soundtrack in the eighties. This is one of them.
Steven Spielberg handed this film to director Joanou after the two worked together on Amazing Stories. Spielberg was even executive producer originally, until creative differences with Aaron Spelling resulted in Spielberg taking his name off the film. Spelling would go on to more devious actions, including the creation of Tori Spelling.
Cinematic Soulmates: Better Off Dead. My Bodyguard. Or, just pick a teen comedy from the eighties. There’s a one in five chance you’re wrong.