In 1987 it was beyond easy for an inventive film like Three O’Clock High to unfortunately get lost in the shuffle. In the wake of popularity following John Hughes’  successful coming of age comedies and the enormous reception to The Karate Kid, it would have seemed near impossible to market this high school underdog film to a mass audience in a way that would shows how unique and bold it actually was. When the late Roger Ebert reviewed this film upon it’s initial theatrical release I feel he unfairly dismissed this film by comparing it to the excellent My Bodyguard from 1980 and perhaps on the narrative surface level these two films have quite a bit in common, but as far as what they each set out to do in tone couldn’t be farther apart in the slightest. Filmmaker Phil Joanou, who would later go on to make one of the best crime dramas of the last three decades with State of Grace, set out to make a black comedy that captured the kinetic and surreal sensibilities of Martin Scorsese’s brilliant After Hours with the hunger and unpredictability of an unhinged visionary like George Miller in his prime. Phil Joanou came on to the scene as an exciting and hopeful protege of Steven Spielberg who was really behind this project in full force, but would later have his credit removed, possibly due to Aaron Spelling hoarding producer credit or Spielberg’s disappointment in Joanou’s creative decisions in not delivering something more conventional for a wide audience. There’s different theories that have been brought to the table, but I personally tend to side with the filmmaker’s explanation provided on the wonderful commentary track of this SHOUT SELECT Collector’s Edition disc, there’s also more insight given in his supplementary interview included titled “Head of the Class” and then you have slightly conflicting anecdotes provided by the original screenwriters Richard Christian Matheson (son of famous fantasy writer Richard Matheson who he co-wrote Loose Cannons with) and Thomas Szollosi provided in the supplemental feature “Passing The Test”‘.

One of the most important elements to Three O’Clock High working on such an engaging level is the collaboration between the director and the masterful cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, hot off the heels of Blood Simple. Take for example, the nightmare sequence that takes place in the football stadium where we witness through the eyes of protagonist Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko best known for supporting roles in Back to the Future and Stand By Me) a football player shaped pinata being smashed to shreds in surreal slow motion, as red confetti breezes elegantly across the other side of the field to reveal none other than the menacing antagonist Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson who would later appear as the villain in Kindergarten Cop and might now be mostly recognized as a frequent bit player in the films of the Farrelly Brothers. In the hands of a different collaborative team this scene would have played out very differently and most likely wouldn’t capture the sense of entrapment and dread that permeates throughout this entire film. Phil Joanou wasn’t making a coming of age highschool film, he was making a prison film. Some people like to point ton this as being a contemporary take on High Noon, I see it having more in common with The Great Escape. It’s a shame that we never saw much of Anne Ryan (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) after her otherworldly performance as Franny in this film. She had an alien quality about her that reminds me of Michelle Meyrink in Real Genius that adds to the dream state quality of Jerry Mitchell’s predicament of being in a spiraling situation that can only be taken on it’s own surrealistic terms. The underlying score by Tangerine Dream only adds to that effect and when complimented by Joe Ann Fogle’s rapid fire editing choices, we’re left with that all too familiar feeling of being an adolescent in a seemingly no win situation, which is what I believe was Phil Joanou’s intention from beginning to end.

Not to take anything away from the great output from Scream Factory, we’ve been treated to year after year but SHOUT SELECT is slowly but surely becoming my favorite boutique label under the Shout Factory umbrella. Not only has every transfer I’ve seen thus far been incredible, but every title has been an absolutely must own from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! and Midnight Run to Streets of Fire and Mr. Mom.  

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Sean McClannahan

Sean McClannahan

Sean McClannahan is a freelance film journalist and is the founder of Movie Time And Beyond. His passion for movies and pop culture knows no limits.