Teaching Mrs. Tingle

It comes advertised as “the wicked new film from Kevin Williamson” (who makes his directing debut with an old script he wrote at UCLA), but the one thing Teaching Mrs. Tingle isn’t, right down to its softened title, is wicked. It’s a prolonged tease — a Hitchcocktease — always flirting with outrageousness, always pulling back at the last minute. Tingle is a bland combo of the slasher-movie Kevin Williamson (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) and the wannabe-John Hughes, TV-producer Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek). In short, every time our young “heroes” visit some indignity upon their teacher nemesis, we’re sure to get a scene reiterating that these are basically good kids driven to this behavior, just as we also get a scene giving the teacher one more layer of monstrosity. Yet we can’t even enjoy the kids’ transgressions, because the transgressions are so lame you understand why the teacher just shrugs them off. They’re not in her league.

Katie Holmes, she of the serious moon face, is hardworking high-school senior Leigh Ann, who is one point away from becoming valedictorian and nabbing the scholarship she needs for college. To do this, she needs an A from her history teacher, Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren), who does not bestow high grades lightly, if at all. Mrs. Tingle is the sort of coldly sportive teacher you meet only in movies (I never had one like her, or maybe I was lucky) — a bitch who relishes grinding her students into the dirt with sarcasm, criticism, and bleak predictions for their future. One afternoon, while Leigh Ann is laying out graduation seating with her best friend Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan), their lackadaisical classmate Luke (Barry Watson) drops by and hands Leigh Ann her salvation: a copy of Mrs. Tingle’s final exam. Leigh Ann decides not to cheat, but Luke slips the exam into her bag anyway; then, of course, Mrs. Tingle finds it there and cheerfully busts Leigh Ann. Kiss valedictorian goodbye; now she might not even graduate.

Whatever will poor little Leigh Ann do? Her mom (the uncredited Lesley Ann Warren), an exhausted waitress, wants Leigh Ann to escape their small town and make something of herself — go off to college and pursue her dream of becoming a writer. (A profession wherein Leigh Ann will probably end up making half of what her mom makes, unless she goes to Hollywood and becomes the next Kevin Williamson.) So this isn’t just for Leigh Ann — it’s also for her loving, self-sacrificing mom, who works her fingers to the bone for her daughter while the childless, apparently well-off Mrs. Tingle lords it over everyone in the school. A message about class conflict seems to be rattling around in there somewhere, unacknowledged and undeveloped. The snobbish Mrs. Tingle tweaks her students with digs like “Hope you make a good waitress” or “A name tag will look so good on you,” yet Williamson seems to agree with her that public-service jobs are last-resort drudge work that the kids should flee from. We’re to be horrified at the prospect of sensitive, smart Leigh Ann missing out on college and inheriting her mom’s dreaded name tag. Williamson may have made the mom sympathetic to avoid the charge of classism, but I think he should be charged anyway.

To get back to the main “plot,” Leigh Ann and her friends go to the home of Mrs. Tingle (a cheese-Gothic house well outside the salary of any real high-school teacher) and try to reason with her. But Mrs. Tingle won’t be reasoned with; she’s unreachable. Helen Mirren delivers some of her lines with animalistic fervor, and from time to time she lets her inherent sexiness sneak through, but the script she’s been handed is sheet music with only one note. Mrs. Tingle winds up tied to her bedposts, and as the movie went on I began to see this as a good visual metaphor for what’s done to Mirren as an actress here. Mrs. Tingle taunts her young captors, telling stories that may or may not be true, and whenever we think we’re seeing a vulnerable side of her, it turns out to be a ruse. Mrs. Tingle is like a wildcat caught in a bear trap; she snarls and gnashes. And though Mirren can snarl and gnash with the best of them, there’s no subtext to Mrs. Tingle’s vicious jealousy of her students; there’s barely even any text.

I realize that using a word like “subtext” in a review of a crappy teen movie sounds faintly ridiculous. But the movie certainly didn’t need to aim so low (it misses anyway). Most of the tension develops from the kids’ growing mistrust of each other as Mrs. Tingle manipulates them, but it’s no fun watching a cartoon Mrs. Lecter toying with airhead Clarice Starlings. Only once do the kids find the brains to manipulate the teacher right back, and it’s the only funny sequence in the movie — but then, the sequence involves the great Jeffrey Tambor, who could be funny reading from Sylvia Plath. Williamson casts Tambor spot-on as a sweetly libidinous coach whose eager anticipation of a spanking good time with Mrs. Tingle is a mini-masterpiece of high foolishness. Elsewhere, Williamson goes for stunt casting that leads nowhere — Michael McKean as the easily intimidated principal, Vivica A. Fox as a guidance counselor, Molly Ringwald (yes, her) as an office secretary — because they’re given nothing to do. (Ringwald, subbing for Mrs. Tingle in class at one point, launches into a foulmouthed lecture on Napoleon that comes out of the blue.)

It’s also worth pointing out that the movie, which until a few months ago was titled Killing Mrs. Tingle, is quite secondhand: There was a young-adult book published in 1978 called Killing Mr. Griffin, by Lois Duncan, who also wrote the book I Know What You Did Last Summer — which Williamson adapted. Coincidence? The movie is not line-for-line plagiarism, though both Mrs. Tingle and Mr. Griffin are frigid perfectionists who, in their first big scene, take pleasure in humiliating students in front of the class. Duncan’s book is at least more grim: the group of students consciously set out to scare Mr. Griffin into begging for his life; he expires rather unceremoniously somewhere near the middle of the book, and the rest of the story is basically a rehash of the guilt and paranoia of Last Summer. Duncan also humanized Mr. Griffin before he died, something Williamson doesn’t bother to do for Mrs. Tingle at any point. Whether or not Miramax changed the title because of Columbine (or perhaps to avoid legal action from Duncan, who was none too happy with Williamson’s version of Last Summer), the movie as it stands now is more accurately named, because nothing is killed except 96 minutes of our lives.

A movie as formless and timid as Teaching Mrs. Tingle leaves you wondering whom it was made for and what Kevin Williamson had in mind. Except for the bit with Tambor, the movie isn’t funny, and it’s certainly never tense or scary. It’s nowhere near “wicked,” either, because the kids never cross the line, never pass the point of no return. It’s a dark comedy without the darkness. It’s also not particularly well-directed (Williamson should save his auteur aspirations for his TV shows); most of the action unfolds inside Mrs. Tingle’s dreary bedroom, and when the scene shifts outside, it’s still dreary. The film drizzles when it should thunder, and it ends on a note of sunshine. This, I guess, is what’s going to have to pass for “wicked” until Hollywood gets over Columbine. It’s been rumored that the softening of Tingle didn’t end with the title change, that it got tamed a bit prior to release, and having seen it, I can attest that it’s tame, all right. But here you have a movie in which three teenagers go to a teacher’s house and take her hostage. Either you go all the way with that premise, or you don’t go there at all.

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