(1987) Directed by Phil Joanou; Written by Richard Christian Matheson and Tom Szollosi; Starring: Casey Siemaszko, Annie Ryan, Richard Tyson, Stacey Glick, Jeffrey Tambor, Philip Baker Hall and Mitch Pileggi; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“I was really working overtime to try to make the movie as memorable as I could, because my biggest fear was high school movies were generic, and it would just kind of fade into the woodwork of what was an extremely popular genre at the time. So, I needed to separate it out from the world of John Hughes and I really thought the casting was a real chance at that.” – Phil Joanou
Since it’s back to school time across the county, I thought it only appropriate to discuss a favorite, almost forgotten relic from a time not so long ago (well, not so long ago to me, anyway). Starting around the time of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), high school comedies became all the rage. Three O’Clock High rode this wave, which continued throughout the ‘80s, but wasn’t afraid to march to the beat of its own drum. Phil Joanou, who directed an episode of the TV series Amazing Stories, was approached by Steven Spielberg with a movie script called After School. Fearing the resulting film would be a John Hughes clone, Joanou initially turned down the opportunity to direct, but returned to Spielberg (serving as ghost producer) for a second chance. The script was re-written to reflect Joanou’s darker sentiments, eventually adding some touches from his own high school experience. Instead of a familiar Southern California setting, the comedy was shot in a real high school in Ogden, Utah (due to its “gothic” look), with hundreds of actual students as extras to offset the older leads.*
* Fun Fact #1: Casey Siemaszko and Richard Tyson, who played adversaries in the film, were both 26 at the time.
The resulting film contains many of the familiar high school comedic elements, twisted into a unique viewing experience. At its core, it’s an updated spin on the 1952 western High Noon. The basic story is transplanted from the classic flick, with one man standing alone against a vicious outlaw. The film that Joanou cited as his primary inspiration, however, was Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), featuring someone trapped in a situation beyond his control, with no means of escape. Joanou’s film features multiple shots of ticking clocks, a constant reminder that the minutes are counting down until the protagonist’s inexorable doom.
Casey Siemaszko (probably best known as “3-D,” one of Biff’s sycophants, in the Back to the Future movies) plays the role of a lifetime as Jerry Mitchell. He’s an ordinary honors student who keeps his nose clean and doesn’t make waves with other students – until the new kid, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson) arrives on campus. The movie builds a legend around Revell as we jump from student to student to hear about his misanthropic exploits. Revell has an unprecedented reputation for violence, leading to a history of bouncing around from one school to another. When Jerry is recruited to write a piece on him for the school paper, he inadvertently ends up on Revell’s bad side, setting up an after-school confrontation.
It’s a mismatch of mythological proportions against Jerry, the everyman, and Revell, an unstoppable force of nature. The comic tension builds, because we know Jerry doesn’t stand a chance in a fight with his adversary. Jerry’s dire predicament is reinforced by a scene in his science class, where he watches an instructional film* depicting a scorpion preying on a helpless cricket. Richard Tyson establishes just the right tone with Buddy Revell. He takes no joy from what he does, but he makes no bones about asserting his dominance over all he surveys. He’s enigmatic and unfathomable, suggesting there’s much more lurking beneath the surface. In one scene, we learn that we’ve underestimated his intelligence, which becomes another power move.
* Fun Fact #2: Joanou shot the footage himself, in 16 mm, and purposely distressed the film so it resembled a vintage ‘50s- or ‘60s-era nature documentary.
Each scene has a distinct payoff, with a surprise around every corner. We’re right there with Jerry, sharing his angst about how he’s going to survive the day. Each attempt to reverse the inevitable fate that awaits him at 3 p.m. fails miserably (as when he hires a jock to beat up Revell or tries to get expelled from school). His girlfriend Franny (Annie Ryan), who resembles Molly Ringwald’s goth cousin, channels her energies elsewhere to help him. After consulting her “spirit advisor,” she concludes she must “bond” with Jerry, but the resulting love scene doesn’t end up quite the way we’d expect.
Three O’Clock High boasts a collection of memorable, eccentric peripheral characters, including Mitch Pileggi in a pre-X-Files role as Duke “The Duker,” Herman, who takes his job as a school security guard a bit too seriously. His boss is the Dean of Discipline Voytek Dolinski,* who runs his office like the commandant of a POW camp (check out the books on his desk). Philip Baker Hall does a nice turn as a suspicious police detective, investigating a $500 theft at the student store. Jeffrey Tambor is sufficiently deadpan as Jerry’s student store boss and mentor, while Stacey Glick shines as his plucky, supportive younger sister Brei.
* Fun Fact #3: According to Joanou in his enjoyable DVD commentary, the character’s name was from an actual person in his high school. Using the same name could have potentially ended in legal trouble, but the character’s real-life counterpart apparently approved of his cinematic simulacrum.
Joanou and crew effectively capture the disorienting sights and sounds of the high school experience (thanks in part to Barry Sonnenfeld, who was one of the directors of photography). Frequent low angle shots of authority figures make them appear larger and more menacing. Multiple zooms and inserts (Joanou stated there were more than 200 inserts, done on a soundstage at Universal) contribute to the frenetic tone, conveying how everything is converging on Jerry. In one particularly nightmarish scene, a pep rally in the gym becomes a hellish harbinger of death and dismemberment. Another key contribution to the bewildering tone of the film is the atmospheric score by German electronic group Tangerine Dream. The music conveys a sense of urgency, as Jerry’s tension rises. In his DVD commentary, Joanou (citing the unique American high school experience) noted that something was lost in translation as the music was originally scored. The composers saw this as a life or death struggle for Jerry, rather than a black comedy, including much darker, ominous themes. Joanou worked with them to re-mix and re-score the film to match the dark (but not too dark) feeling he intended.
Sadly, Universal didn’t share the filmmakers’ enthusiasm for Three O’Clock High and its unorthodox sensibilities, restricting marketing to newspaper ads. It subsequently fell into movie oblivion within a couple of weeks (I’m happy to say I was one of the few who saw it during its release), although it eventually gained a small but devoted following through cable and other home video avenues. The biggest tragedy was that it didn’t lead to more starring roles for Siemaszko, who along with Tyson, anchors this film. It’s an anomaly from an era characterized by safer (at least from Hollywood’s perspective), broad-appeal comedies from John Hughes and other filmmakers. Joanou achieved his objective to create something outside the lines, while working with the same box of crayons. Three O’Clock is full of surprises, happily subverting our expectations at every turn.