Three O’Clock High (1987) – A Review
“You and me, we’re gonna have a fight. Today. After school. Three o’clock. In the parking lot. You try and run, I’m gonna track you down. You go to a teacher, it’s only gonna get worse. You sneak home, I’m gonna be under your bed. You and me….three o’clock.”
Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson) is arriving for his first day at his new high school. He has a reputation – a very scary reputation! The whole school is nervous and are trading tales of the legendary violent incidents that he’s amassed. Everyone knows it will be best to stay as far away from him as possible!
Fate steps in and places hapless Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) into Buddy’s crosshairs. The gauntlet is thrown! Buddy declares he and Jerry will have a fight after school at three o’clock. Word spreads fast through the halls about Jerry’s inevitable demise at the hands of the dangerous Buddy and everyone is talking about this death sentence Jerry is now facing.
As the school clock begins ticking down to the final bell, Jerry tries everything he can think of to avoid his destined destruction at the hands of Buddy Revel and to survive this school day.
Everyone loves 1980’s movies. Raving about teen comedies, worshipping and quoting John Hughes films and experiencing nostalgic trips back in time relistening to the awesome soundtracks.
Three O’Clock High is a 1987 high school comedy that quietly came out and quickly left movie theaters without getting much notice. Inevitably, it found a steady rotation on cable television for a stretch.
After making the rounds on cable and getting a lifeline on VHS attracting viewers who discovered it, it would quietly disappear once again. While it has never reached the echelon of ’80’s teen comedies’ that would become quoted and repeatedly watched and referenced for decades after, it has become fondly remembered as an offbeat, little seen relic of the decade that never got the attention it deserved. At least that’s my story with Three O’Clock High.
It’s a movie I’ve always loved and one that my friends and I would constantly watch. When I first saw it decades ago I was immediately enraptured. I would bring it up and tout it as a flick to recommend to people. The reaction would continually be, “I’ve never heard of it.”
It never got the love I felt it deserved.
It’s one of those ‘nightmare’ films, where (usually over the course of a single day or night) our hero is befallen with incident after incident of bad luck that puts him deeper into an inescapable hole. After Hours, Into The Night, The Out of Towners, Clockwise, Blind Date, Miracle Mile, Quick Change, The Party. Then toss in some touches of High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and a prison drama for good measure and set it in the perilous world of high school. That kind of describes Three O’Clock High.
Things start out as an average day for high school student Jerry Mitchell. He’s running the school store selling pens and notebook paper under the eye of teacher Jeffrey Tambor. He awkwardly bumbles his way through a conversation with Karen, a gal he has his eye on. His younger sister Brei (Stacey Glick) describes the storm in the form of Buddy Revell that is about to arrive. He attends the morning meeting for the school paper and he gets assigned to interview the new kid. This is not something Jerry is too keen to do.
Revell has already become the talk of the school. Stories are being passed around of his reputation. Legendary tales of his dangerous nature and the victims who he’s laid in his wake. He’s apparently a ‘touch freak’. If you anyone lays their hands on him, they will suffer unmerciless pain. Students already shudder when his name is mentioned. When Buddy arrives for his first day of school, the sea of students part with tense shoulders as he enters the school.
It’s a great introduction to the villain of the story. He’s filmed in low angles, with ominous music playing, students eyes widen as Revel makes his slow walk to the doors. You can see why Jerry wouldn’t be thrilled to talk to this guy.
From a spontaneous and extremely awkward introduction in the school bathroom, Jerry and Buddy meet and the fuse is lit. Buddy is angered and declares he and Jerry will have a fight in the school parking lot at three o’clock.
It’s hysterical how fast the news of this upcoming fight runs throughout the school. Within moments of the smackdown being issued, EVERYONE is talking about it, betting on it and anxious to see how severely destroyed Jerry will be after the dust settles.
Meanwhile, the mortified Jerry is desperately trying to think of any idea to escape this fate. With suggestions from his friend and trippy clairvoyant gal pal, Jerry’s attempts at a way out of his impending doom result in even more problems for him. He ends up having to deal with security guards, the dean of discipline, a police detective, romancing his English teacher, hiring some protection and engaging in some grand larceny.
Trippy dutch angles, wild camera zooms, slo-mo and sped up shots, extreme closeups of clocks ticking away, overhead shots, dolly zooms on Jerry’s worrying face, the camera is having a grand time whipping around this high school and telling this story in the most fantastical and visually scrumptious way it can.
Cinematographer and future director Barry Sonnenfeld worked uncredited on Three O’Clock High and you can certainly see his fingerprints on the film. There’s a heightened, exaggerated existence taking place on Jerry this day. Knowing some of his other work in Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Throw Momma From The Train you can clearly see the visual similarities that Sonnenfeld brought to it.
There’s certainly a lot of love for filmmaking going on here. That’s further reinforced by a pair of wannabe student filmmakers who want to document Jerry’s path to destruction. It’s kind of funny now to see them lugging around a huge VHS camera, After Jerry refuses to let them film his trip to his execution, the one film students says, “Come on man. Pain is temporary film is forever!” That line has always stayed with me.
Three O’Clock High has a very quirky, offbeat, unique style that makes it stand out from the pack of other teen comedies at the time. Watching it now it’s not really surprising that it didn’t hit big in 1987. It immediately looks like it was destined to be a cult film and not something for the masses. The film looks and feels ahead of its time and not something that would’ve attracted teens with more mainstream tastes back then.
I always thought Three O’Clock High would make a great double feature with 1988’s Heathers. Two dark comedies about the turmoils of being a teenager.
There are tons of fun comedic touches that run throughout Jerry’s day. A film in science class, a pep rally, English literature verses all comedically foreshadow the pummeling that is approaching Jerry.
The dean of discipline has books about Nazi War Crimes and ‘Justice At Nuremberg’ on his desk, along with mounted animal heads on the walls. At one point he’s standing on the school roof talking to the students and he appears more like a prison warden talking to his prisoners than some educational representative.
The supporting young cast you might not recognize, but they’re all good and fit into this freaky high school fable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen most of them again. There are blink and you’ll miss them appearances by Yardley Smith and Paul Feig.
There are more recognizable actors fulfilling the grown up roles. John P. Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, Mitch Pileggi and Philip Baker Hall, who plays a police detective. I always thought his deadpan, intimidating turn here as a detective who wants to crack the case of the school store break in, might’ve been a precursor to his memorable casting as the librarian detective on Seinfeld a few years later.
Siemasko is a likable guy and quite funny as the put upon hero of Jerry Mitchell. He fits in with the oddball tone of the film and plays his part just right. He doesn’t try to play things too cool or play too nerdy. He plays an ordinary student who has found himself in an extraordinary predicament. Will he make a stand against Buddy or manage to escape?
Semaszko never became a bigger name out of the ‘Brat Pack’ pool of actors from back in the 80’s. After seeing him in Three O’Clock High I thought I’d be seeing much more of him. He has stuck around, but not really the way envisioned it. He appeared in smaller parts in bigger movies (the Back To The Future films, Young Guns, Stand By Me, The Phantom) and bigger parts in small movies (Breaking In, Of Mice And Men, The Big Slice), but he never became a big name. He continues working to this day.
Whenever I see him pop up in something the first thing I associate with him is Three O’Clock High. Even when I saw him playing Jack Ruby in that 2013 Killing Kennedy TV movie I thought, “Hey, that’s Jerry Mitchell who’s about to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald!”
Richard Tyson’s most famous role post-Three O’Clock High was probably playing the heavy against Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1990’s Kindergarten Cop. He also did quite a lot of work since playing Buddy Revell and also kept working, mainly in the action genre.
Director Phil Joanou was something of a Spielberg protégé. After directing a few episodes of Amazing Stories, he got to helm his first film with Three O’Clock High. Spielberg was executive producer on the film, but asked to have his name removed from the credits. From what I’ve read the final product was not what he was expecting.
According to IMDB, Spielberg was expecting a film of the type and style of The Karate Kid. When he watched the final film he supposedly said to Joanou, “What happened to Karate Kid? You made a Scorsese film!” I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, it’s pretty amusing!
I think the film is a terrific debut. It’s creative, funny, it has a visual flair and an exaggerated fresh perspective on a high school comedy. Joanou would segway into focusing more on music video productions, including the 1988 music documentary U2: Rattle and Hum.
Three O’Clock High came out quietly and just as quickly left cinemas. It never got close to the attention or affection other teen comedies at the time received. It soon made its way to cable television where I believe the majority of fans first got introduced to it and fell in love with it. Or at least that’s my story with the film.
How did this happen? Why wasn’t Three O’Clock High a bigger hit?
Maybe because there’s no popular 80’s tunes dotting the soundtrack that got big MTV exposure (although it is good and the score by Tangerine Dream adds a dreamy aura to the film). There’s no beautiful young pinup stars, the climax doesn’t take place at a school dance and there’s no main love story that the girls in the audience will be hanging on throughout the story.
It’s mainly about a school fight in the parking lot at three o’clock. – it doesn’t get much more complicated than that.
Maybe the studio just didn’t market it the right way and pushed it enough. Or maybe it was just too dark and odd for mainstream audiences to embrace back then.
It’s a movie told in such a unique way it seemed destined to become a movie not meant for mainstream audiences and became this off the beaten path film that was always waiting to be discovered by the right audiences.
Right from its initial release it appeared destined to become an oddball cult film that one might not categorize it with the more popular teen comedies of its period. Yet, it would sit proudly in a distant corner being an unconventional and strange look at the high school experience and ready to entertain anyone who would look its way.
I view Three O’Clock High as a real underrated gem! It continues to feel as fresh and funny as when I first saw it.
Buddy Revell is set to arrive at his new school and the student body are already passing around tales of his scary legendary reputation