Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Film Appreciation - Pain is temporary, film is forever

This week in Film Appreciation, Cody Hamman reports on the 1987 comedy Three O'Clock High.

"I guess I shoulda known from the beginning... it was gonna be one of those days."

Jerry Mitchell is an average high school kid who's having a bad, strange, yet very interesting day. His problems start as soon as he wakes up, an hour late to get to school and open the student store, where he works as a cashier. He then finds that his mother forgot to dry his clothes before leaving on vacation, so he has to dry his shirt in the microwave alongside his breakfast Pop Tart. His car has a flat tire, so he has to drive his mom's car - with the license plate SUPRMOM - brushing his teeth while he drives and rinsing his mouth with his younger sister's Diet Coke. This hectic start is nothing compared to the troubles the rest of the day holds.

A new student is starting school today, a guy named Buddy Revell, whose violent exploits are legend. Rumor is that he broke a fellow student's neck, pulled a knife on a coach, put a teacher in the hospital, carries brass knuckles, literally punched someone's nose off their face... One thing's for sure, Buddy is a "touch freak". Touch him and he goes psycho.

Jerry also works on the school paper, and unfortunately for him he gets the assignment to do a "welcome aboard" student profile on Buddy. Jerry first encounters Buddy in the restroom and totally blunders their interaction, starting off with the faux pas of trying to talk to Buddy while they're side-by-side at the urinals. He tells Buddy he's supposed to do a "stupid little piece" about him for the paper - Buddy doesn't want to look stupid and he doesn't like when people know about him. Jerry tells him to forget about it, then makes a grave mistake. He touches Buddy on the arm. After shoving Jerry into a urinal and slamming him into the restroom mirror, Buddy tells him they have an appointment - three o'clock, after school, Buddy and Jerry will fight in the parking lot.

The rest of the film follows Jerry's attempts to get out of the fight during the countdown to three o'clock. He can't talk his way out of it, Buddy can't be reasoned with. He can't just skip the rest of the school day, he's got a math test and a book report to do. His sister Brei and his school paper pal Vincent try to help him and advise him, coming up with plans - frame Buddy for something, hire the school tough guy to beat Buddy up, get detention. Something always goes awry and Jerry gets deeper and deeper in trouble.

Still, things aren't all bad for Jerry. He's got not just one but three potential love interests - his super cute, quirky, New Agey friend Franny, who's desperate to "bond" with him; English teacher Miss Farmer, who becomes attracted to him while he's doing a bad boy act during his attempt to get detention; and the beautiful Karen, who takes an interest in him once news of his impending fight spreads through school.

Karen isn't the only one who gets interested in him. The accounting club sets up betting pools for the fight, a couple aspiring filmmakers want to make a documentary about it, and Jerry's actions catch a lot of attention from disciplinarians and authorities.

As Jerry's anxiety and desperation mounts, the classes and assembly he attends take on surreal, nightmarish aspects - a film shown about insects shows a harmless cricket being torn apart by a crab scorpion, cheerleaders use baseball bats to beat a skull-faced piñata representing a rival team, the mythology tales told in history class are insanely violent...

That mythology stories are featured is no coincidence, as director Phil Joanou, working with a script by Richard Christian Matheson and Thomas Szollosi, wanted to present the simple story in a way to elevate it to mythological heights, a high school David & Goliath. Also playing into this aspect are references to Franny communing with her spirit guide/guardian angel, who assures her that Jerry will be fine, he's a warrior.

Joanou made his feature film directorial debut on this at the young age of around 24 or 25, and did an expert job. It's a very stylishly directed film, full of camera movement and interesting angles, the camera dollies and cranes and spins, speed ramps are added, there's an upside down P.O.V. shot and even a shot from inside a fire alarm. Helping Joanou achieve this was cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, the Coen brothers' D.P. of choice at the time, fresh off the Raimi-influenced shoots of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. Oddly, Sonnenfeld is credited only as the "lighting consultant".

Sonnenfeld's isn't the only credit strangeness, an even bigger oddity is the fact that Steven Spielberg was an executive producer on this film but chose to have his name removed. I can't really find a clear answer for why. In her podcast interview on Natsukashi, actress Caitlin O'Heaney (Miss Farmer) suggests that it had something to do with Aaron Spelling being the main producer and owning the script, but I don't quite understand the issue.

The cast is great, led by Casey Siemaszko (who went on to be in Young Guns) as Jerry, with Richard Tyson as the quiet, secretly smart brute Buddy, and a supporting cast that includes Stacey Glick, Annie Ryan, Jonathan Wise, Liza Morrow, and well-known greats like John P. Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, and the fantastic Philip Baker Hall. Mitch Pileggi, who you may know as Skinner from The X-Files or Horace Pinker from Shocker, appears as the school's overly intense security guard, self-nicknamed The Duker. Yeardley Smith shows up a couple times. Brian Andrews, who was Tommy Doyle in the original Halloween nine years earlier, is credited as playing "Nerdy Kid", but I'm not sure where he is. My best guess:

The movie was filmed at Ogden High in Ogden, Utah, an awesome-looking school in the midst of an awe-inspiringly beautiful landscape. Ogden is on my wishlist of future filming locations.

Three O'Clock High is one of the several movies that got many repeat viewings from me during my childhood, on VHS and cable, most of the viewings initiated by my older brother. I have memories of watching the movie with him at my maternal grandmother's house and being fascinated by the concept of brass knuckles. Twenty plus years later, it still holds up as a really well-made, very enjoyable, fun movie to watch.


  1. I haven't seen this one in years, but its a classic! Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Franny, Miss Farmer, even Brei were way more attractive than Karen!

    1. You must be blind Brei wasn't way more attractive than Karen get real Brei was ugly

  3. Pain is temporary, film is forever!