At least, it is for sure my favorite 80’s flick about high school bullies. And, though it’s far from an obscure title, I feel like a lot of folks have never had the pleasure. Maybe it was a bit late to the party, having released a year or more after many of the genre’s heaviest hitters like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) or Better Off Dead (1985), or maybe it suffered from lack of familiar Hollywood Faces. Whatever the reason, Phil Joanou’s Three O’Clock High is way too far off our collective radars, because it’s really good and really fun like only 80’s movies about high school can be.
If you’ve never seen it, it goes something like this: Jerry Mitchell has basically the worst day of his life when he’s assigned to do a piece for the school newspaper on Buddy Revell, new transfer student, known psychopath, and “touchfreak”. In an excellent bathroom scene that introduces Revell as an impossibly stoic, mean-spirited, every nerd’s worst nightmare, Jerry asks for the interview and in turn receives an invitation to fight Buddy after school at Three O’Clock (Titular line!). For the balance of the film, Jerry attempts to remedy this intractable situation through a host of means, ranging from truancy to grand theft, all the while trying to figure out how in the hell this waking nightmare became his life so suddenly. Each unsuccessful and increasingly desperate attempt at escape shaves precious minutes off his remaining hours on earth, until finally, the fateful three o’clock hour arrives.
But I’m not writing this to summarize the plot, though even a simple summary makes this film relatable, because nearly everyone has been confronted by the irrational dickheadedness of bullying at some point. Bullies are enemies we can all unite our opinions on. They suck. And oh man, does Buddy Revell excel at sucking. Richard Tyson should have been nominated for a fucking Oscar for this performance. He’s invincible as Revell, a Titan among teenagers who simply follows which rules he chooses and when. Tyson’s portrayal is brilliantly restrained, a tactic both hilarious and actually intimidating, especially as compared to so many movie bullies. Think of Buddy Revell as the foil to Revenge of the Nerd’s infamous dickweed Ogre. Where Ogre howls and flexes, Buddy leers and plods, allowing the threat of his violence to become more menacing than anything he could actually generate. The confusing thing about Revell is that he has this innate coolness that makes him really likable, even though you know better than to like him. He dresses cool, he has awesome hair, He’s athletically built like you wish you were, He drives the car from Deathproof, and he’s unaffected by basically everything. It all coalesces to form a near perfect facade of indomitability.
And Jerry Mitchell eats it up. He’s the perfect victim for this story. Casey Siemaszko’s portrayal is panicked fear incarnate, though he’s more the quietly throwing up in the bathroom type than the hyperventilating in class type. He’s a nice kid, and a smart, reasonable kid. Maybe he’s a bit of a putz, but you’re on his side from the film’s opening sequence. Watching Jerry grasp at straws is uncomfortable in the most entertaining way. His emotional pendulum slowly swings from fear to anger, passing through some strange territory along the way, like his attempt to get kicked out of school by seducing his english teacher during a book report, which is truly epic stuff. Of course, these efforts are fruitless, and ultimately meaningless to Revell, who doesn’t understand reason or charm, who deals only in fear and violence.
In Three O’Clock High’s climax, Buddy Revell delivers on his reputation, which has preceded him perhaps too well, because he’s scared Jerry Mitchell into finding his own violence. It’s gratifying as hell and I won’t spoil it by describing it here. The resolution is nice and neat too, just like a great 80’s high school movie’s resolution should be.
This all sounds a little serious, and it is, a little. But Three O’Clock High has a playfulness to it that keeps things just light enough for you to have fun with it. There are the two UCLA film school hopefuls who want to document Jerry’s demise on film, his precocious kid sister, who basically serves to intermittently remind him how fucked he is, his sort of goth sort of girlfriend, the painfully hardassed parking guard, etc. The character actors are many, and great. The cinematography is actually really excellent and ambitious. It is shamelessly plot driven, but the two main characters steal the show with great performances. The soundtrack rules. Basically, it does a lot of things really well. You should watch it.
For now, just watch this three minute clip of expositional perfection. If this doesn’t make you want to see this movie, check yourself for a pulse, or a sense of humor.