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Guilty Treasure Trove II: Below/Sydney White/Three O’Clock High

21 January 2009 3,187 Views 4 Comments author: Isabelle M.

In this installment of the Guilty Treasure Trove, I’ll discuss three movies that couldn’t appear to be more different. One is a genuine, but forgotten classic, one an underappreciated little horror movie, and one could prove potentially embarrassing. At first glance, these three titles have little in common, but there are certain parallels to be found here, from the similarity between Three’s High School corridors and rising paranoia, and Below’s haunted sub to Below’s and Sydney White’s very different, but equally feisty female protagonists.  On top of that, all three are underdog stories. Three’s Jerry Mitchell must go up against a psycho bully, Below’s Claire matches her wits against the Tiger Shark’s officer cadre and Sydney White dares to challenge the popular students on Greek Row.

Three O’Clock High (Phil Joanou, 1987)

A typical high school student, Jerry Mitchell is about to have the worst day of his life. He wakes up late, his car has run a flat and even before he can properly start his day, he has a run in with newly arrived student Buddy Revell. Buddy is a psychopathic nutcase with an aversion to being touched, which Jerry promptly does, and much to his horror he is challenged to a fight at—you guessed it—three o’clock.

The rest of the day Jerry desperately tries one hare-brained scheme after the other to get out of the fight, and each scheme pushes him deeper into the quagmire. All the while, the clock keeps counting down.

Even as my biological clock carried me well beyond the genre’s target demographic, I have kept an interest in the high school movie. Not because I’m a high school teacher myself, but because our high school culture is very different from its American counterpart; I’ve always been fascinated by these glimpses into this typically American micro-culture.

In 2006, Entertainment Weekly published a list of the 50 best High School movies and much to my chagrin, Three O’Clock High wasn’t included.  I believe that’s a shame, because it’s a hell of a lot more deserving than such tripe as Can’t Hardly Wait or Bring It On1.  It’s funny, recognizable and has in Casey Siemaszko a likable every-guy protagonist. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as classics like The Breakfast Club, Say Anything and yes, American Pie.

While there is an element of wish-fulfillment here, (it’s hard to imagine Jerry would last more than 10 seconds against Buddy, let alone 3 minutes as one classmate bets) you can’t help but root for Jerry. Don’t be put off by the 80’s aesthetics.  Yes, there’s plenty of poofy hair and shoulder pads on display and –gasp—the soundtrack is by Tangerine Dream, but there’s still a lot to enjoy in this semi-forgotten entry into the High School movie-genre.

Below (David Twohy, 2002)

The year is 1943. After a long deployment in the Atlantic and with only a single kill to show for it, the USS Tiger Shark is limping its way home with less than its full complement on board. Days before, their skipper drowned under mysterious circumstances so morale is low and the crew is weary and eager to get home. Unfortunately their homecoming is postponed when the Tiger Shark is forced to deviate from its course in answer to a distress call from a British hospital ship. Only three survivors are recovered and one of them is inquisitive Army nurse Claire (Olivia Williams).

The news of the skirt’s arrival spreads like wildfire along the ship. Some of the crew are happy to have a female companion amongst them, but others express that age-old mariner’s superstition that a woman aboard ship brings bad luck- a superstition that soon turns to truth when a German sub-hunter picks up their trail and what follows is a deadly game of cat and mouse –and every submariner’s worst nightmare.

Especially when in the midst of silent running, Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” starts playing on a gramophone all by itself!

Lieutenant Brice (Bruce Greenwood), before he starts falling apart. Not literally.

Lieutenant Brice (Bruce Greenwood), before he starts falling apart. Not literally.

It soon becomes apparent that there is something even more ominous than the sub-hunter stalking the Tiger Shark and its crew. Claire, with survival instinct kicking in, becomes too inquisitive for her own good but is stonewalled at every opportunity by first officer Brice (the always dependable Bruce Greenwood) and Gunner’s Mate Loomis (Holt McCallany). Her only allies are her own inquisitive mind, fellow Brit survivor Kingsley (Dexter Fletcher) and the young ensign Odell(Matthew Davis) on his shake-down cruise.

There are few places that I can imagine are more scary than a submarine.  Even when safely moored to a dock, they are dark and sinister from the outside, cramped and claustrophobic from the inside. They are designed to operate in an environment that is as alien and hostile to humans as outer space. One of my friends has served onboard a submarine and from his stories I gathered that even in peace-time, a submarine sounds like something straight out of a horror story.  Stories of spanning a clothes line from one side of the compartment to the other and then watching it sag as the boat dives deeper and the water pressure contracts the hull.  Stories of a malfunctioning diving plane that causes the boat to dive well below its maximum depth limits. Combine this environment with a supernatural haunting and you hit upon a premise that is borderline genius.

David Twohy has proven before that he is able to deliver tons of atmosphere on a limited budget and Below is no exception. After a scene that cleverly doubles as a tour of the Tiger Shark and an introduction to the various crew members, Twohy quickly plunges us into the action with the arrival of the German sub-hunter. With the Tiger Shark under attack by depth charges and – yes — giant grappling hooks, Twohy makes the best of the submarine genre’s clichés. Even before the supernatural element comes into play, the fear and confusion of a submarine, turned from hunter to hunted, is palpable.

Kingsley (Dexter Fletcher) and Claire (Olivia Williams)

Kingsley (Dexter Fletcher) and Claire (Olivia Williams)

Luckily for the viewer, the filmmakers realized that sometimes, the less shown is better. Below is not a visceral horror movie; instead, all the fears and anxieties are internalized as we witness the horrors through their eyes. It makes the happenings deliciously ambiguous as we can never be sure if what they are experiencing is real or merely hallucinatory illusions brought on by stress and oxygen deprivation.

It’s far from a perfect movie. Below seems to run out of plot just short of the ending, and Twohy cheats slightly by shooting in larger-than-scale interiors to accommodate the actors, which sacrifices some of the natural claustrophobia of the sub. It’s still a damn shame that Dimension Films didn’t have any faith in this movie. Apparently they believed that a “run silent, run deep” marketing campaign was appropriate for this submarine movie, and they only released it in a couple of theatres. As a result, I imagine a lot of people have missed this little gem, slipping in, as it were, under the sonar.

Sydney White (Joe Nussbaum, 2007)

After the death of her mother, Sydney White (Amanda Bynes) was raised by her father and grew up to be more interested in the properties of the Stanley 22 ounce Anti-vibe Nailing hammer than in the latest fashions. When she reaches college age, Sydney is determined to follow in her mother’s footsteps and join the Kappa house, which is ruled with an iron, but immaculately manicured fist by president Rachel Witchburn (Sarah Paxton). When Sydney attracts the attention of Beta president Tyler Prince (Matt Long), a jealous Rachel has Sydney expelled from the Kappa house and she ends up in the Vortex, an anomaly on Greek Row that houses the misfits of campus.

Together with the seven dorky residents of the Vortex, Sydney is determined to break the Greek dominance of the campus  and save the Vortex from demolition.

If you ever wondered what would happen if Snow White attended college, this movie will provide your answer. Yes, it’s a modern take on the classic fairytale and manages to touch all the familiar checkpoints. The personality traits of the seven dwarfs, as popularized by the Disney version are all present and accounted for. Sneezy/Lenny (Jack Carpenter) has so many allergies he should be living in a plastic bubble, Bashful/Jeremy (Adam Hendershott) is so shy he only communicates through his hand puppet and Grumpy/Gurkin (Danny Strong 2) is – what else? — a blogger. The magic mirror is replaced by a campus hot-or-not-site that deems Rachel the fairest of them all 3 and along the way we’re treated to a chorus of Hi-Ho, a poisoned apple and of course that wake-up kiss.

The Wig-On-A-Stick (Sarah Paxton), Kappa's boo-hiss prissy president

The Wig-On-A-Stick (Sarah Paxton), Kappa's boo-hiss president

The movie moves nicely along at a brisk pace and while there is some mild sexual innuendo, there’s nothing here for parents to abject to. The seven dorks are sharply characterized. Jack Carpenter in particular does an admirable job fleshing out the stereotypical Lenny and Danny Strong has really perfected his nerd schtick by now. As the love interest, Matt Long is easy on the eyes, gets a chance to prove his pipes and  does a nice job of allowing those around him the chance to act. Still, Joe Nussbaum is a pretty pedestrian director. Despite writing and directing fan-favourite George Lucas In Love, he never capitalized on it, nor seems to have progressed in his craft. At best, his direction is functional, at worst the dialogue doesn’t flow naturally, as if the actors are forced to pause for a sit-com style laugh-track.  The soundtrack doesn’t elicit much excitement either, treating us to the generic Diet Rock/Pop that infests so much of the teen genre.

At face value, Sydney White is nothing out of the ordinary, merely a pleasant and undemanding diversion after a day’s hard work. It would have faded into anonymity if not for its ace-in-the-hole: Amanda Bynes.

It must be hard for child stars to break out when they grow up. Some lose their cute-factor, some have a hard time making the transition to mainstream appeal and some self-destruct under the weight of expectations. For every star that succeeds, there are a dozen who simply fail to make the cut.  Jodie Foster is the most famous example of a child star that made it; in recent times, Christina Ricci4 and Anne Hathaway have carved out interesting careers after first paying their dues in tween-marketed Disney fare.

Bashful, Grumpy, Sydney, Happy

Back Row: Sleepy, Sneezy, Doc, Dopey. Front Row: Bashful, Grumpy, Sydney, Happy

Now, personally, I don’t care if the likes of Hillary Duff and the Olsen Twins disappear into straight-to-DVD Hell, but I find myself rooting for Amanda Bynes to make that all-important crossover movie. She has the comedic chops and is not afraid to make fun of herself if the material asks for it. There’s no denying she’s pretty, with a very expressive face and killer legs, yet she is accessible and seems pretty down-to-earth. She makes it entirely plausible that Sydney White is completely at ease in the company of dorks, and at the same time is upstaging Rachel Witchburn on the campus hot-or-not list, even hampered as she is by the worst spray-on tan I’ve ever seen. She’s the type of actress that can deliver the word “bitch” without coming across as one herself.

There’s a reason why I watched Sydney White three nights in a row and it’s not for the story or the jokes. It’s for the hot chick who knows who Gandalf is. Now if only Hollywood would give her some material to really sink her teeth into.

Edited by Matt Schneider

  1. Elisha Dushku’s bikini carwash scene notwithstanding
  2. Who, curiously, receives second billing on the European DVD case.
  3. Which is silly, because Sarah Paxton is so rail-thin, she resembles a wig-on-a-stick. And if you think that’s harsh, please keep in mind that Sarah Paxton also played the female lead in Superhero Movie and any actor who’s involved in one of those dreadful “parody” movies deserves all the scorn s/he can get.
  4. Back in 1995, I predicted an Oscar within the next 10 years for her, and while I have been proven wrong, she has proven to be a very capable actress who cleverly balances indie cred with mainstream appeal.

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