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Three O'Clock High

Aside from a little thing called Reaganomics, there are few things less insidious from the 1980s than the dreaded teen comedy. A genre with origins dating back several decades, the teen comedy came into its own during the Reagan era and is best exemplified by the films of John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, etc.). These films in and of themselves, and in moderate doses, aren't all that bad. But the problem was that there were so damn many of them, ranging from Teen Wolf to Can't Buy Me Love to One of the Guys. That's not to say that all teen comedies sucked, because were actually a few good movies. Case in point: Three O'Clock High (1987). Casey Siezmasko stars as Jerry Mitchell, an unassuming senior at Weaver High School who works at the student store and writes for the school paper. Jerry's high school career has been one of good grades and mundane predictability. But things take a terrible turn for the worse when new student Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson) arrives on campus. Buddy is hulking mass of a teenager with a reputation of beating up other students — and teachers — that follows him wherever he goes. When Jerry is assigned to write a profile on Buddy for the school paper, he inadvertently pisses off the bully, prompting Buddy to challenge Jerry to a fight after school. Now it's all Jerry can do to avoid his inevitable showdown with Buddy. But as the day goes on, and word of the impending fight travels through school, it looks as if Jerry has nowhere to hide. Borrowing heavily from High Noon, Three O'Clock High is one of those movies rescued from obscurity and granted cult status, primarily by the video store clerks who discovered it when it first came out back on video in the late '80s. Along with Heathers, which came along two years later, it offered a darkly comedic alternative the sickeningly sweet fare that was being produced for teen audiences. Perhaps because Three O'Clock High isn't as well known as Heathers, it seems to have aged a bit better. It also helps that Three O'Clock High doesn't have the same hipper-than-thou attitude of, which is why the latter has not aged as well. Of course, in an era when high school massacres by armed students has become a reality, someone having to fight a bully seems quaint. One of the things that separates Three O'Clock High from so many other movies of the era is its surreal, nightmare-like quality. Thanks in part to the production design of William Matthews, the movie's world is a comedic nightmare, capturing the mix of horror and humor found in high school — the tone and pacing are reminiscent of Tim Burton's early work. But what really stands out is the amazing cinematography. Three O'Clock High is beautifully shot, with intricately executed camera movement that enhances the movie's surreal nature. Oddly, there is no director of photography listed in the credits. Ace cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, however, is listed as "lighting consultant" — whatever that is. Sonnenfeld is best remembered for his camera work on the early films of Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona), before moving on to direct films like Get Shorty and Men in Black. A long-standing rumor has it that Sonnenfeld shot Three O'Clock High under an assumed name during a cinematographer's strike. Whatever the case, it is pretty clear that it is his creative eye at work behind the lens, and that the picture represents some of the most fun and innovative photography in the career of whoever shot it. Universal's DVD offers an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that allows the beautiful cinematography to be appreciated. The rest of the release, however, is bare-bones all the way — not even a trailer. For those who first discovered Three O'Clock High on home video, this is a great opportunity to see it in a crisp, clean version. For those who haven't seen it, but think that '80s teen comedies are not their cup of tea, it is, if nothing else, a great film to watch and appreciate for the technical craftsmanship that went into making it.
—David Walker

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