Sunday 9 September 2012
THREE O'CLOCK HIGH
(Phil Joanou, 1987) Aping the "one day" approach which had proven so successful twice over in the hands of John Hughes (on Ferris Buellers Day Off and The Breakfast Club), Phil Joanou's debut feature Three O'Clock High adds a twist of the premise from a classic Western. The title acknowledges as much without suggesting quite how strange a mix of tones and influences this film is. Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) is a somewhat anonymous, nice guy High School student who manages to offend the legendarily tough new boy at school, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson). Revell announces that he and Jerry will fight at 3:00, after school, in the parking lot. From then on, an increasingly desperate Jerry struggles to prevent the fight, trying to buy protection, get himself put in detention, flee the school, and have Buddy expelled, all in vain. Amidst all of this, his new age friend Anne (Franny Perrins) wants them to "connect", the police are investigating the theft of the float (by Jerry) from the school shop, his best friend Vincent (Jonathan Wise) makes things worse when he tries to help, various school authorities loom, and the beautiful Karen (Liza Morrow) seems to have taken a newfound interest in him. There is much here familiar from many other '80s teen movies; the high school itself is so generic it functions almost as THE American High School, densely populated by mainly White kids from a broadly middle class background, thronging in its palatial stairwells, locker-lined corridors, and its football field. These kids are often given peculiarly eccentric characterisation, their quirks and tics as fully-developed and assured as those of any adult, from Buddy's psychotic blankness to Jonathan's 1940s newsman schtick. Then there are the nicely-drawn parallels between the school and a prison, underlined here by the sinister authority figures Jerry encounters (Joanou emphasises all this with an overuse of low angle shots) and a few plot developments: intimidation in the toilets, hushed blood money payments to tough guys in the yard. For all that, it's oddly unfunny, Joanou proving far more comfortable with drama than he is with comedy. His approach to the comic material is scattershot; there is slapstick here, a little satire, some comedy of embarrassment. But hanging over it all is the big clock of the plot and it's countdown to Jerry's showdown with Buddy. Siemaszko is fine throughout and Joanou and Tyson succeed in making Buddy quite terrifying, immovable in his stubborn desire for combat, his use of violence shot for impact, emphasising his brutality and lethal forcefulness. That showdown, when it comes, is heightened to an almost operatic level, and terrifically satisfying. Joanou favours a few too many showy angles and ostentatious directed moments, but he's a solid storyteller too, and the Tangerine Dream score works better than one might imagine in such material. Overall, its an unusual, distinctive take on the teen movie, and one that just about works, a few minor flaws aside. It suggested that Joanou had massive potential as a director, potential that he never really fulfilled.