** spoiler alert **
PlotThree 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 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.
Doesn’t sound like a comedy, does it?
Why This Film FailedBy 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.
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.
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.