This directorial debut by the pasha of sexy teenage angst marks another entry in the because-I-say-so cinematic sweepstakes. Writer-director Kevin Williamson (the scribe behind Dawson’s Creek, Scream I and II, and The Faculty) marches in with an armful of givens and dumps them in the audience’s lap, and the audience’s allegiances and emotions are expected to follow from these presumptions, despite their implausibility.
It is a given, for example, that everyone at Grandsboro High School (couldn’t Mr. Williamson at least have made an effort?) hates and fears Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren), the sarcastic, hardass history teacher with a penchant for humiliating the slackers and destroying the achievers. At first, Mrs. T. appears to have sharp ears for blackmail possibilities—she wishes the school principal (Michael McKean) a happy birthday, to his bafflement, before amending: “Your AA birthday, of course.” Meow! Because we know neither of them well, it’s funny—maybe he deserves to have this choice informational nugget dangled before him.
But grownups, in Williamson’s by-now-suspect teen-centric standards, are always fair game; Mrs. Tingle collects plenty of incrimination or embarrassing secrets because she’s an old meanie, and the principal’s position makes him ipso facto a figure of pity. This behavior, by Williamson’s lights, becomes unforgivable when Mrs. Tingle brings it into the classroom. But despite her nasty turns of phrase, Mrs. T is not wrong in criticizing her scornful and/or moronic students. It’s supposed to be awful that she humiliates spunky budding actress Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan) for relating a bunch of specious historical untruths while impersonating Marilyn Monroe. Mrs. Tingle is absolutely correct in pointing out that all Jo Lynn’s history presentation has going for it is the distracting novelty of her white dress and wig, absent as it is of any facts. When smartass slacker hottie Luke (Barry Watson) dumps a stone on her desk and sneers, “Plymouth Rock,” the class giggles stoutly, as if he’s just given a rousing speech against administrative hypocrisy.
And what does she do to poor put-upon Leigh Ann (Katie Holmes), the smartest girl in school and the one who works hardest so that she may escape the fate of her diner-waitress mom (Lesley Ann Warren—and, say, between this and Drop Dead Gorgeous, there seems to be a paralyzing fear in Hollywood of ending up a waitress; resonances, anyone?)? She cruelly ignores the girl’s project and instead picks apart the ambitions and fears that led to such an elaborate undertaking—a leather-bound daily journal of an accused teenage witch in 17th-century Salem. Unfair, but also unnecessary. I suppose Williamson could hardly see his script through the tears, which is why Mrs. Tingle overlooks the fact that, despite Miss Priss’ meticulous research, they didn’t burn witches in Salem; they were hanged.
Facts, schmacts—teens are good! Anyway, it’s a week before graduation and in this bizarre school system each class project contributes or extracts points toward possible valedictorian status and college scholarships, so Leigh Ann needs (and because she needs, deserves) an A from Mrs. Tingle. In an effort to help her, Luke has snaked a copy of the history final—which is discovered in Leigh Ann’s backpack, to Mrs. T’s lip-licking delight. There’s nothing for it, of course, but for Luke, Jo Lynn, and Leigh Ann to go to her house, try to reason with her, tie her up, threaten her with a crossbow, and take turns allowing themselves to be psychologically manipulated by the clever, psychotic spinster until a pseudo-bloody climax.
Never mind the teens’ confusion, Teaching Mrs. Tingle can’t keep its own story straight. The captive at the center of the film has no motivation for her nasty attitude—she’s the type who shouldn’t tolerate suck-ups, either, although she indulges a rather odious example of the type—beyond jealousy for the kids’ being younger than she is. There are a sympathetic guidance counselor (since when?) who is introduced only to disappear; a lovestruck coach (Jeffrey Tambor) who appears at Mrs. T’s door with flowers and some naughty requests; and a small, provoking dog who won’t shut up, has no plot impact, and bears no name. Coughlan, who does a fabulous impression of a possessed Regan from The Exorcist to pass the time, is a twinkly little gem, but it’s distracting to notice that her hair seems to have grown in every scene.
Mirren doesn’t have the schlock chops of an Anthony Hopkins to put some villainous muscle in her character, so she’s merely dreadful and catty. But that doesn’t stop the kids from being serially manipulated by her. Williamson, of all people, should understand the minds and actions of kids who’ve seen a lot of movies—he writes horror movies about horror movies—but these idiots are put through their inane paces with lots of snideness but very little self-consciousness. The film isn’t incompetently directed—Williamson is a slickee and no mistake—it’s just topsy-turvy. It’s draggy where it should race, and the action is confusing instead of shocking, the snarky tone ignorant and passionless. And it’s a sad waste of Holmes, a fine teenage actress who’s going to be a beautiful woman—if anyone will let her grow up.
The saddest case is that of Williamson himself, whose “I’m on your side, kids” schtick is beginning to smell gamy. He no longer seems to understand the priorities and operations of the young, and no longer seems to care. Hence the postmodern self-consciousness of Scream—the kids know not to go into the basement but they end up victims anyway—becomes an ironic self-willed blindness to the conventions of the suspense genre, as the idiotic teens disintegrate in reaction to Mrs. Tingle’s blatant psychological manipulation. A few months ago, the production retitled itself from Killing Mrs. Tingle, supposedly under the subduing effect of the spate of school killings, but that title would have been misleading. In Williamson’s numb, alienated world, there are no consequences to any action, no one gets really hurt, and all the good guys end up with their due because—well, because he’s your director and he says so. CP