Three O’Clock High from director Phil Joanou is a distinguished entry in the well-populated 1980s high school genre.
The 1980s teen movie was peppered with instances of the little guy trying to find an inner strength to triumph over the bigger, tougher, and most definitely “cooler”, bully. If teenage boys weren’t chasing girls in order to pop that elusive cherry, they were fighting an image they never asked for, searching haphazardly for an eject button that might extricate them from their pigeonhole. In Porky’s we see the high school kids chasing both dreams – get the girl (at least for half an hour) and beat their tormentor (the man-mountain owner of a nearby low-rent nightclub); in The Breakfast Club we see “the geek” contaminate the social hierarchy by daring to call the “cool” kids his friends.
That’s the central premise of director Phil Jaonou’s loose re-imagination of classic western High Noon. An unspectacular high school student finds himself the centre of everyone’s attention when the school bully challenges him to a fistfight. Throughout the day he desperately searches for a way out of the fight, which is to take place at the day’s final school bell. No matter what he tries to do there appears no escape meaning he must face his unhinged opponent.
The film’s off-kilter humour reminded me a little of Savage Steve Holland’s brilliant Better Off Dead. Indeed, Joanou frames Richard Christian Matheson and Thomas Szollosi’s cartoonish laughs with a fittingly unleashed camera, employing a visual flair that reflects the spiralling uncontrolled events affecting our protagonist’s day.
Casey Siemaszko, who you might recognise as one of the older bullies in Stand By Me, is Jerry, our host for the day. He’s a needle in a stack of needles. As a perennial do-gooder, he’s liked by his teachers without excelling academically and gets on with life without drawing attention to himself. That all changes when new kid Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson) arrives on the scene. Buddy comes with a reputation and none of it is good. When Jerry is tasked with interviewing the school’s unhinged newcomer for the school paper he inadvertently provokes Buddy into calling the fight.
The story then centres around Jerry’s increasingly frantic schemes to avoid the duel. Like another 1980s teen hit The Breakfast Club, Three O’Clock High takes place in a single day which gives it a sense of tangible momentum. This is helped by director Joanou’s hourly reminder of the time, a school clock-face prefacing Jerry’s next scheme to avoid Buddy. What’s likable is Jerry himself – he’s an every-kid, an insignificant speck in a sea of pubescent teenagers. But his determination to save his own skin brings him out of his shell; a coming of age in the silliest of circumstances. And through his harebrained schemes we not only warm to his plight, we join the growing chorus of fellow pupils willing him to succeed.
Buddy may be a caricature built upon Richard Tyson’s impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator but Three O’Clock High isn’t about him. Buddy is simply the embodied idea of the typical 1980s American school bully – big, short-tempered and leather-clad. The enjoyment lies in the out of control spiral of events that affect Jerry’s day, the array of characters that try to help along the way, and his eventual moment of reckoning.
Three O’Clock High has become something of a 1980s cult classic. That’s not surprising given the frequency of memorable moments. The sight on Jerry’s face, for instance, when he hires the school’s toughest senior to tell Buddy to back off only to see him get his nose broken and the library trashed in the process, or his inadvertently successful seduction of a beautiful literature teacher when trying to force through an after-school detention, are just two of many.
Admirably, the film doesn’t hold back when it needs to show its darker side but there’s a warm heart on show amongst the offbeat sense of humour. It all fits together nicely, and while the film hardly breaks away from the genre tropes that made 1980s teen movies so recognisable, Three O’Clock High has a hard-edged but endearing quality that helps it stand out.