Friday, December 13, 2013

Film Friday: Three O’Clock High (1987)

Three O’Clock High is an interesting film. You could call it a forgotten film, except that no one knew about it in the first place, plus it’s not really forgotten – it seems to have found a fan base. I like it a good deal. What makes Three O’Clock High so interesting to me today, however, is why I think it never caught on: it’s a dark comedy that was too “real” for people to enjoy.

** spoiler alert **
Plot
Three O’Clock High is the story of Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko), who is about to have a very bad day. When he arrives at school he hears everyone talking about the new “kid,” Buddy Revell (who looks like a 20 year old thug), a transfer student with an extreme history of violence. Much to Buddy’s chagrin, he is assigned by the school newspaper to interview Buddy.
Jerry finds Buddy in the mensroom and tries to arrange the interview. It doesn’t go well, so Buddy decides to retreat: “Let’s just forget the whole thing,” he says, and he pats Buddy on the arm. Big mistake. Buddy does not like to be touched and when Jerry touches him, he tells Jerry that he will fight Jerry at 3 o’clock.

Jerry freaks out and tries to find a way out of this. He even enlists his friend to help him. The results are bad for Jerry. His friend tries to plant a knife in Buddy’s locker, but Buddy uses the knife to cut the hoses on Jerry’s car and plants the knife in Jerry’s steering wheel. Jerry then gets in trouble for trying to escape school as he is apprehended by school security (Mitch Pileggi as “the Duker”). He is caught with the knife. He tries to escape by telling the truth, but is accused of trying to shift the blame to Buddy. He also gets accused of cheating off of Buddy, and he gets threatened with even greater harm.

In a near panic, Jerry robs the school’s store, which he runs, and he uses the money to bribe a football player to threaten Buddy. Buddy destroys him. The cops are called to investigate the theft and they suspect Jerry. Jerry’s whole future is threatened.
Finally, Jerry buys off Buddy. Buddy takes the money but mocks Jerry. That is the moment Jerry finally decides to stand up for himself. The tells Buddy there will be a fight, and there will. A fairly brutal fight scene ensues involving brass knuckles. In the end, the other students show their respect for Jerry by helping him replace the money he had stolen from the school store. Even Buddy appears and returns the money Jerry used to try to buy him off. Jerry has prevailed and proven himself.

Doesn’t sound like a comedy, does it?
Why This Film Failed
By their very nature, teen films are angst ridden and dark. The reason is that the most effective ones deal with the fears and insecurities of teens. Sixteen Candles dealt with issue like teens who feel ignored by their parents. Pretty In Pink dealt with dating problems. The Breakfast Club dealt with feeling like an outsider. Risky Business dealt with being too uptight. Better Off Dead dealt with all of the above. How these films deal with these issues varies. Some take the teens’ complaints and insecurities and blow them way out of proportion to make the teens laugh and, thereby, get some perspective. Others take the complaints and insecurities seriously and then defuse them by showing it all getting better. Those are the formulas. By addressing these issues, these films assurance the teens in the audience that they aren’t alone and that things will get better. (As for the adults, it reminds them of how stupid they were as teens.) And that is how these films attract their audiences.

Interestingly, while these may seem like dark comedies at first glance, they really aren’t. In each case, the “dark” humor is either so blown out of proportion that it isn’t even vaguely realistic (e.g. a pimp steals everything from your house, you are hunted by a paperboy), or it is immediately defused by all the characters telling the affected character that everything will be all right and then jumping into action to help them. There is also always this overriding sense in these films that everything will eventually work out before the credits roll; this is why they are comedies instead of dramas.
Three O’Clock High is different. Three O’Clock High is truly a dark film. Indeed, it’s not clear if this is meant to be a comedy or a drama, and the topic is something that is hard to laugh about – waiting to get beat up after school is something many people have experienced, it’s not something you laugh off. Moreover, the fear here is realistic. Nothing about Jerry waiting for his appointment with Buddy is bizarrely exaggerated to the point of being funny, as it would have been in Better Off Dead, or completely unlikely to happen in real life, as with Risky Business. There is no comfort given either. Jerry’s friends aren’t helping him; to the contrary, they are hurting him. Some are even exploiting his impending destruction. The teachers don’t help. And Jerry doesn’t seem capable of finding a way out or surviving the fight.

Further, as the film progresses, it even gets progressively darker. The school administrators treat Jerry like a criminal. You get the feeling that no matter how this ends, Jerry’s life will be forever altered negatively. Buddy becomes even more menacing to the point of becoming a total psycho. His actions get worse and worse too, as he cuts the hoses in Jerry’s car and leaves the knife in his steering wheel, as he destroys a football player with one punch, as he introduces brass knuckles, and as he takes out the Duker and principal with his fists in single blows. Again, none of this is comedic, it’s just menacing and can easily make you sick to your stomach if you’ve shared Jerry’s dilemma.
This is a ton of darkness and takes this film very, very far from the tried-and-true formula for teen films. Because of this, I suspect this film turned people off, which is why it made only $3.7 million.

Interestingly, as I think back over the films I’ve seen throughout my life, there are very few dark comedies that did all that well – excluding Coen Brother’s films. There are quite a few that did poorly, such as this one, The War of the Rose and To Die For, but few that did well. And what I realize about the Coen Brothers, and why they have done well, is that the Coen’s present an unreal world for their dark comedies. Just as with the teen comedies like Better Off Dead and the Hughes films, there is an unreality to the Coen films which lets you look beyond the ugliness and the horror and laugh at the silliness of it all. That is what Three O’Clock High is missing. So apparently, the rule is dark is fine, but it can’t be dark and realistic.

Now, all that said, I do personally enjoy Three O’Clock High a lot and I recommend it. The humor, when it comes, is hilarious. It stands in such contrast to the rest of the film that it almost forces you to laugh out loud. There are some great scenes like the book report. I also like that Jerry finally finds his self-respect and takes down Buddy. It’s one of those moments that makes you proud. And then to see the other students, who have been such bloodthirsty sh*ts up to that point come together to help Jerry really is one of those rare well-earned “feel good” moments in film. This is perhaps too why it still has some staying power today when it had no staying power in the theaters.

Thoughts?

38 comments:

shawn said...

The last time I saw this was at the theater back in the 80s. I remember it being very dark and getting progressively tenser and tenser. I remember it being okay, but no humor and thus not caring for it too much. As you said, this came out during the time of all those famous and generally funny teen flicks and so I made the assumption it would be of similar tone.

The escalating tension of "what else could go wrong" in this film reminds me of Scoresese's After Hours.

Anonymous said...

I decided to give this a stream before reading, as to get a better feel for things, and I see what you mean about it feeling too real... I've been on the wrong end of a few after-school beatings when I was a kid, so I understood where Jerry was coming from. The way everything backfires and the way the school administrators treat him as things spiral out of control is unsettling, too, though that part starts to blur the lines between realistic and outlandish enough to fit into a comedic movie for me at least.

Regardless, it was an interesting movie and for me it definitely paid off in the end! Jerry standing up for himself, his friends helping him, and Buddy's defeat shifting his fortunes had me grinning at the end. You were right about the book report scene, too, especially the way it paid off in the ending, too! Jerry really did end up as quite the legend, didn't he?

- Daniel

Outlaw13 said...

The ending of the movie makes the journey worthwhile to me. I think there's enough funny in there, but I sometimes have a warped since of humor.

Jim said...

I personally enjoy this film. The ending is satisfying without being a gimmick, and the humor is well paced without being over-the-top. Also enjoyed the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. Supposedly Steven Spielberg was involved in the production as well.

Question: how many went to a high school where there was a "Disciplinary Officer"?

tryanmax said...

I think I may have heard of this film, but I'm not even sure of that. Judging from the synopsis, it seems like it's been parodied a lot, but I obviously can't be sure. I'll see if I can find it anywhere.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I think that the comparison really hurt this film. This was a different type of film than the others even though people expected it to be the same. It was the same with The War of the Roses -- after Romancing the Stone, people expected funny... not dark.

In the end, I do enjoy this film a lot, but I can see why it was rejected by the public because it was too dark and it didn't fit the expectations.

AndrewPrice said...

Daniel, "Unsettling" is a good word. You really can feel for Jerry in a "sick to your stomach" sort of way throughout the film as everything just keeps getting worse and worse. And I think that was probably too uncomfortable for most people. It definitely keeps this from being a light movie.

But like you, I think it's an interesting film, well worth seeing, and the ending really is worth it. A lot of films throw on a fake "we overcame everything ending," but this film really earned it. This ending really makes you feel proud and happy and all those good things.

I love the book report! Epic! :)

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, I'm with you. I think there is enough humor throughout that I saw this as a comedy the entire time and I laughed out loud a lot. But I do see where for a lot of people, this will just seem like a cruel/dark movie.

And like you, I think the ending pays off in a big way -- especially when Buddy shows up at the store... it's just a great way to end this film.

AndrewPrice said...

Jim, I think the soundtrack is fantastic. And I agree about the ending. A lot of times, these films end with a very fake feeling "we overcame" ending. The standard "everyone now loves the hero and the bad guy scream 'curses' and throws his hands into the air" montage. This film doesn't feel that way. The ending here is very strong, but also believable.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, Jim, we never had any sort of obvious security like they do in this film, but I know that other schools in our district did and I understand that this is a lot more common these days.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, It's definitely worth seeing.

ScottDS said...

Ya know, I actually remembered the name of the principal after all this time!

I saw this movie once a decade ago and I think you're on to something, especially since, while I enjoyed the movie, I have no interest in revisiting it anytime soon, lest it bring back some unpleasant memories.

I do remember that the film was directed very well. It's kinda hard to quantify but, for a high school flick like this, it was clear that there was someone with a vision at the helm. I vaguely recall some interesting camerawork and editing, which you usually don't get with this genre.

Director Phil Joanou has had an eclectic career... started off in music videos, directed this movie, directed a few other movies (like State of Grace) and now he's more or less back in music videos. He's done some TV here and there, too.

And Casey Siemaszko just appeared in Killing Kennedy as Jack Ruby (!).

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think there was definitely someone with a vision at the helm here. This isn't a normal film, nor is it just a collection of scenes. This film has a vision and it sticks with that very nicely.

On not wanting to see it again, I can definitely say that the film is sufficiently dark that I rarely feel like re-watching it, though I will watch it when I stumble upon it. On the other hand, it does make a strong impression on you -- much stronger than most teen films IMO.

At this point, Casey Siemaszko was one of the up and coming brat pack, but he seems to have flamed out fairly quickly and become just a supporting actor.

BTW, As mentioned above, Steven Spielberg was the Executive Producer, though I'm not sure what that means in terms of him having actual input.

Backthrow said...

Wow, thanks for jogging my memory on this film. I remember when it came out, during a time when I went out to the movies every week... I nearly bought a ticket to it, but I was with friends, and the group decided on some other flick instead, and I never caught up with it --I think the theater replaced it with another film after a week or so. Looks like one for the streaming queue, then. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, This one vanished after the first week in most places, so most people have never even heard of it. It's worth checking out.

EricP said...

Shots of the clock tick-tick-ticking towards 3 PM one of the best on-screen tension builders I can remember. Oh, also one helluva book report, too! Mmmm, Miss Farmer ...

"Don't fuck this up, Mitchell!!!!" = my most oft-used quote not from Animal House or Caddyshack.

PikeBishop said...

Wow Andrew. I have not thought of this movie in over two decades and I suddenly remembered it last week and Wickipediaed it! Funny that!

Hmmmmmm PikeBishop will be sharing a hot tub with Jessica Alba and Ginnfer Goodwin..............

Maybe it will work.

EricP said...

Shameless plug alert/accompaniment to AP's great review/notes: http://www.threedonia.com/archives/29955 .

Critch said...

I remember this film very well, you're right, there's little humor in it. On my first day of school in the 7th grade here in Missouri (shop class, 1966), a big monster of a 9th grade student walked up to me and said that he was gonna "whup my ass" at 3PM, because I was new and he could do it..I immediately smashed a piece of 1x4 up againts the side of his head...I grew up in downtown Memphis until I was 12, we learned you never warn anyone. The shop teacher didn't say a word to me, he told the bully to get in his seat or he would get some more. I also never had another fight in school...

KRS said...

I never saw this one, Andrew, but you got me thinking about My Bodyguard (Adam Baldwin, Matt Dillon). I remember that movie all too well, because I had a bit of a go with a bully in school, too. As in Bodyguard, my little drama wouldn't be over at 3, but dragged on for weeks. I actually did hide in the toilets during lunch bell. In the end, I beat the guy until he bled and no one was more surprized than me.

My Bodyguard was no comedy and it felt exceptionally real to me, given my own experience. Any chance you'll review it?

Critch said...

My Bodyguard is a really good film...

PikeBishop said...

KRS: I liked your story. I had a similar one. I have a hyper thyroid and I was usually chronically underweight. Once in junior high some beefy (more fat than football player though) ninth grader walking down the hall decided to body slam me into my locker. (surprising myself) I turned around and clocked him right in the jaw. As his surprise turned to anger I planted my feet turned full body to face him, and my posture said "Come on!" He shrugged and walked away looking for an easier target. "Yay Me" I thought!

Today, we both would be suspended! Sad

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, The ticking clock is used really well in this film, it is like the constant heartbeat of the film and every time you see it, the tension goes higher.

I've quoted that line myself more than a couple times. LOL!

Nice article. :) LINK

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Excellent! Give my best to Ms. Alba. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, BTW, I never realized Jerry had the Gadsen flag in his room?

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, What an excellent solution! Well done! :D

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, I can add "My Bodyguard" to the list. :) A lot of people have compared the two films, though I think ultimately they are just too different in terms of feel and style to really see them as the same thing.

In my experience, the only way to stop a bully is to beat the crap out of him. That tends to be the end of it. Schools hate you for doing it, but you get peace.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Bullying is all about finding weak targets. They don't actually want to fight and most are actually cowards. So you defend yourself and they flee. The worst thing you can do is what they are telling kids today -- come cry a teacher and hope they can magically protect you.

John Jameson said...

I reckon "Heathers" deserves a mention as a relatively successful dark comedy set in high school. And the Coen bros don't have a monopoly on good dark comedy: let me suggest a few more...

Dr Strangelove, Pulp Fiction, True Romance, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Shaun of the Dead (and many other comedy horrors), Kind Hearts and Coronets, Lost in Translation (in part, so maybe Groundhog Day also counts!), The Player, The Matador, In Bruges, Withnail and I, Team America: World Police, Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, Bad Santa,...

Thoughts? Other suggestions?

Tennessee Jed said...

I have never heard of this one. Probably won't go out of my way to see it, but I actually like small Unser the radar films when done well. Dark comedies usually don't do well (day of the Locust, The Loved One come to mind,) Interesting review, though.

Eric P said...

@john j -- Nice list. I'll add Drop Dead Gorgeous. Would love to hear AP's take on that one.

Tennessee Jed said...

John J.'a list is good and interesting, but it, in a way, underscores Andrew's point. Most of the films, even when done really well, don't have a really big audience. Pulp Fiction probably is the most pilar, but it has more comedy than most.

AndrewPrice said...

Howdy everyone, don't mean to be blowing you off. Just not feeling well at all.

John Jameson said...

Andrew, sorry to hear you're not well - I wish you a speedy recovery!

Eric, Jed, thanks. I agree that dark comedy is not likely to be box office blockbuster material, and my list is pretty short, even after adding a few Coen brothers movies to it!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks John! It was not a happy couple days. I had a bad reaction to some medication.

On your point, the Coen's definitely aren't the only people to do dark comedy, but I think they tend to be the most prominent. On your list, Dr. Strangeloveis generally given as THE example of a black comedy, and again, note that it's really far away from realistic. Pulp Fiction is probably as close to realistic as you can get, but I wonder how many people realize it's a black comedy and not a "suspense" film as it tends to get classified here. Some of the others I'm not so sure are dark comedies: True Romance is more of an action/romance, Shaun of the Dead is really just a parody, Lost in Translation is more of a drama, and Team America is just silly. Agreed on Tie Me Up, Bruges, Trainspotting, Bad Santa. Trainspotting is a favorite of mine, by the way.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Agreed about Heathers.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, I'll add it to my to do list. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Agreed.

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