Three O’Clock High (1987) plays out like a fevered nightmare. It’s a prison movie masquerading as a high school comedy. It’s funny, very funny, but not in that “I’m going to wet myself and I think I just blew out my eardrum from squealing so loud” kinda way. No. It’s darker. More sinister. To call it a “dark comedy” is too obvious. You know those obnoxious labels pseudo-movie critics and studio execs love bandying about like “Rom-Com”? Well, to coin a phrase, this movie is a Horomedy. Yep, a horror comedy.
And yes, I realize I just called myself a pseudo-movie critic. Let me try on that shoe… it fits.
From the moment we first meet Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko at his twitching, nervous best), it’s obvious he’s in for a very, VERY bad day. Not only is he running late for school, but soon after arriving, he gets assigned the unenviable task of writing a profile on the “new kid” for the school paper. Said new kid is Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), an intimidating hulk of a man (there’s no way this guy’s a teenager), who does not like to be touched.
And, of course, that’s just what Jerry does. After an uncomfortable conversation in the bathroom, he pats Buddy’s shoulder, sending his day spiraling out of control faster than Buddy can slam him into the urinal and give him a swirly.
Siemaszko plays Jerry as a likeable, insecure member of the ignored class. He’s an outsider, a nerd, but never a stereotype. He’s the kind of guy that no one other than his kid sister, Brei (Stacey Glick) and his friend, Frannie (Anne Ryan) even knows he exists. That is until he’s challenged to fight Buddy after school at 3:00. Richard Tyson as Buddy stalks the halls of the school like Death’s shadow. Tyson plays the character so low key, but with such rage boiling beneath the surface, you get the feeling this guy’s a ticking time bomb.
And when he goes off things are gonna go nuclear.
The outstanding supporting cast consists of no less than Jeffrey Tambor (as a teacher), Phillip Baker Hall (as a cop), and Mitch Pileggi (Woo-Hoo! aka ‘Assistant Director Skinner’ and ‘Horace Pinker’ as a security guard). Other cast standouts include Annie Ryan as Jerry’s New Age, wanna be girlfriend; Scott Schutzman Tiler as Jerry’s best friend and the school’s newspaper editor; and Stacey Glick as Jerry’s kid sister (and stand-in mother).
Director Phil Joanou’s hyper-kinetic direction is inspired. In fact, according to a Q&A with the director (video located below), he was influenced heavily by Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), another comedy whose roots are buried in the dark end of the graveyard, and it shows. While watching Three O’Clock High I was also reminded of another movie I love from 1987: Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn. The sped up camera movements, the no-nonsense brutality of the violence wrapped in a tattered blanket of absurdity (kind of like this sentence), and even a scene in an administrator’s office where Jerry is seemingly mocked by various objects in the room was reminiscent of Evil Dead 2.
Even though the acting and direction are excellent, it’s Tangerine Dream’s synth score music that really made Three O’Clock High tick. The score really underlines the tension and anxiety felt by Jerry as the day wears on. And every time Revell is on screen, his music cues, along with Tyson’s menacing presence, create an atmosphere so foreboding, so suspenseful, they rival most any movie in the suspense or horror genre.
Of course, many may think this darkness would hurt a movie purporting to be a comedy. I disagree. Yes, it’s possible for a comedy to be so dark it ceases to be funny (see Very Bad Things (1998)). But the reason Three O’Clock High works so well is that Joanou and writers Richard Christian Matheson (son of the great writer Richard Matheson) and Thomas E. Szollosi always keep their protagonist sympathetic. We feel for Jerry’s plight. And Siemaszko never lets his character become a buffoon. In the end, we really believe he’s capable of doing what he does.
But I won’t spoil the ending for you. Let’s just say it’s very satisfying. So, is Three O’Clock High worth a rewatch (or watching it for the first time)? The answer is absolutely yes! I can’t recommend this movie enough and, in fact, think I’ll rewatch it again!
Until next time, remember, a flick is only forgotten if you’re not talking about it!
Watch this fantastic Q&A with Three O’Clock High director Phil Joanou. Seth Green (at his Seth Green Film Festival) talks with Joanou about the movie, Tangerine Dream, and what Spielberg thought during a test screening!