My movie viewing history as a child and adolescent seems to have two phases. Starting from when I was very young, I have always loved science fiction and action movies. That shouldn’t be a surprise, considering I was born the year Star Wars came out and spent the better part of my youth watching cartoons that were used to sell action and sci-fi based toys. My father, his friend (my “uncle”) Chuck, my Uncle Lou, and quite a number of other family members happily fostered my love for those things through buying me toys and making me copies of those movies, or not balking at the fact that in the fourth and fifth grade I was watching R-rated movies.
But as I went through high school, I began to become more interested in another genre, which was the teen movie. I’d known about the types of movies for a while and had owned a copy of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off since it first came out on video, but before I graduated, I had probably seen every movie starring John Cusack or directed by John Hughes. The person or people who deserve the credit for this are not the same who got me into a galaxy far, far away, because none of them absolutely loved Say Anything … the way I did (though nobody seemed to think it was weird that a 15-year-old boy wanted to rent Porky’s). I lay the blame for my love of the teen movie genre at someone I didn’t even know: the programming director of WPIX.
Now, here is where I probably should talk about how I first watched Three O’Clock High on a random Saturday afternoon on WPIX and that prompted me to rent the uncensored version of the movie and from there I was completely hooked on this little gem of a film, but that would be a lie. That’s because I actually saw Three O’Clock High in the theater, which should have been a sign that I would become fully ensconced in teen angst flicks within a few years, but in all honesty I went to see it with my friend Tom on Columbus Day weekend of 1987 because we had nothing better to do that day and the commercial had been running on television for the better part of a couple of weeks, so we asked my dad for some money and rode our bikes up to Sayville Theater to take in a very cheap matinee.
My dad was on the phone when I asked him for the money, although I wasn’t deliberately timing it that way because the cost of a matinee for two people at Sayville Theater in those days came in under ten bucks, so it wasn’t like I wasn’t going to get the money. He reached for his wallet and began describing what he thought was the movie we were going to see: a guy has to protect a daughter and she’s in danger, which was the plot of the Scott Glenn version of Man on Fire. I corrected him and he stopped telling my neighbor what the movie was about and looked at us incredulously.
“You’re going to see the one about the fight?” he asked.
“Uh … yeah,” I said.
My father looked at both of us and let out a groan, as if we had just committed the most disappointing act a couple of ten-year-old boys ever could have done. I mean, I might as well have told him that we were going to the salon to learn how to braid the hair of my sister’s My Little Pony collection.
And yes, Three O’Clock High is about a fight. Casey Siemaszko plays Jerry Mitchell, an overachieving geek who raises the ire of Buddy Revell (played by Richard Tyson, who is probably best known for being the villain in Kindergarten Cop) because … well, Jerry touches him and Buddy hates being touched.
It’s set up a little more than that, to be honest–we begin with a Ferris Bueller-esque opening where Jerry is late for school and rushes out the door, being forced to drive while brushing is teeth (and rinsing it down with a Diet Coke), then picking up Annie, his “alternative” girlfriend who is all about her spirit guide Ethan and definitely a caricature of that type of girl. Buddy shows up a few minutes later, surrounded by rumors about how he has left a long trail of students, teachers, and principals in his wake, landing more than one in the hospital because they dared touch him. Naturally, Jerry is assigned to talk to Buddy for the student newspaper and when he runs into him at a urinal and pats him on the arm (after they zip up, mind you), Buddy loses it and tells Jerry that they will fight at 3:00.
From this point on, Jerry does everything he can to avoid the fight. His friend tries to plant a knife in Buddy’s locker, he robs the student store to pay another school tough guy to fight Buddy (and the result is every bookshelf in the enormous school library falling like dominoes) and even tries to reason with him. But finally, after Buddy calls Jerry the biggest pussy he has ever met, Jerry decides he’s going to take the big guy down and they go at it in the school parking lot in front of a few hundred people–both students and administrators.
I have to admit that when I first saw this movie, I didn’t think much of it. Yeah, the fight scene was pretty cool and there were a few moments I liked, but it wasn’t up there with the stuff I had been watching on a regular basis. But around 1990 or 1991, I happened to catch it on a random weekend when WPIX had nothing better to run, and this was right around the time I was heavily into watching the Fox show Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. That show–which will definitely be the topic of at least an entry or two–was definitely a show “of its time,” but had a lot of fun at the expense of school and used odd camera angles and close-ups as well as random sound effects to make things seem funnier than they probably were. That afternoon on WPIX, I noticed that Phil Joanou, who directed Three O’Clock High (and would go on to direct the U2 documentary, Rattle and Hum) did a lot of the same thing. The minute hand moving on the clock, the turn of a doorknob, the shot looking up at dean of students Voytek Dolinski (that name alone) … it all says, “We know this is kind of a dumb idea for a movie, but we’re going to have fun with it.”
And yeah, it was fun. But not enough, surprisingly, for me to track down on tape or rent and make a copy. In fact, this would stay in the back of my mind until one night, when I was channel surfing, I noticed it in the listings of one of the random movie channels I get. So, I went ahead and watched it.
Surprisingly, nearly twenty-five years later, the movie holds up. Siemaszko is not Matthew Broderick, but I got the feeling that even if producers or a studio wanted him to be, he kind of was able to do his own thing. And the rest of the cast does a very good job as well to promote the idea that there’s a ridiculousness of high school. It doesn’t transcend anything in any way but is worth the ninety minutes away from the latest Real Housewives marathon, if you’ve got it.