Sunday 20 February 2011

Obscurity Files #42 - Three O'Clock High

What's Three O'Clock High you say? It's a film that not many modern audiences will have seen or even heard of, but it's a lost 80's classic of sorts. Here, let me try and persuade you...

Average High School nerd Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) isn't having a good day. His alarm went off late, his car has a flat tyre, and now after a bathroom faux pas the new school psychopath is after him. Arriving at the school with a bad reputation, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson) doesn't take too kindly to Jerry wanting to do an interview with him for the school paper, so promises to teach him a lesson after school about boundaries. The clock is ticking and Jerry's got until three to either talk Buddy around or at least get him thrown out of school to save his own hide.

It's fair to say I have what could be described as a slightly random taste in movies. I love finding those odd little rarities that no-one's thought about for nearly thirty years, so the 80's is usually my go to decade. The reason I was persuaded to take a chance on Three O'Clock High is quite odd really. I tend to buy a lot of films from the online retail goliath that is Amazon, who continually bombard me with recommendations of other films I might like based on my buying habits. Three O'Clock High was a permanent fixture of that list, and if only to get it removed from my recommendations list (and coupled with the fact its cover art was provided by master artist Drew Struzan), I figured I'd give it a shot.

And it's a pretty great and original film. 80's High School comedies tend to follow the same formula (nerds vs jocks, boy meets girl, fashion catastrophes), but Three O'Clock High treads some new ground. Taking elements from High Noon and giving it an 80's spin, Jerry Mitchell might not be the most fashionable guy in the world, but he's a relatable teen nerd with spirit. If this film had been made by John Hughes, Jerry would have probably been played by Anthony Michael Hall and we'd all be calling it a classic of the decade.

In the lead role of Jerry we have Casey Siemaszko, best known for his supporting roles in Young Guns and the first two Back To The Future films as 3D, a member of Biff's gang (he's the one wearing 3D glasses, obviously). Nowadays he's a steadily working TV actor, cropping up in Law and Order and Damages, but this was his only lead film role. His character Jerry is an amiable nerd, working in the student supplies shop and being a generally likeable wallflower with a suitably low profile.  When word gets out about his scheduled fight with Buddy, he soon becomes as popular as a post fight George McFly, albeit with a massive sense of impending doom.

As the slightly caveman-ish Buddy Revell, Richard Tyson is most recognisable to me as Cullen Crisp, the bad guy from Kindergarten Cop. He doesn't have to do much here except look big, dumb and tough, rocking a leather jacket and the hair of Michael Hutchence. After Jerry's attempts to pay for protection and bribe Buddy fail, he decides his only course of action is to get himself thrown into detention and out of harms way. He starts by trying to seduce his English teacher, using a surprisingly successful chat up line.

Directed by Phil Joanou, the film was shot by the then Coen Brothers cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld in a suitably kinetic style. Apparently the film was originally produced by Steven Spielberg, but he requested that his name be taken off the credits some time before the release. There's not much to signify Spielberg's involvement with the film, but I'm not sure why he would choose to distance himself from it. His seal of approval would have certainly helped the film reach a wider audience, which this film deserves.

Its plot may sound like an early 90's episode of The Simpsons (think Bart vs Nelson), but Three O'Clock High is an unfairly forgotten high school comedy that could easily be ranked alongside some of the 80's greats. Casey Siemaszko is a likeable lead, placed in an unfortunate situation that at least some of us can relate to. It's a shame he didn't get more opportunities to take lead roles, but his filmography as a supporting actor is one to envy. 

Save from obscurity? YES

p.s. If there's any lesson to be learned from watching this film, it's that if you want to find cool, lost 80's films, trust in the brain of Amazon.

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