Few scenarists in recent memory have generated as much industry heat as “Scream” scribe Kevin Williamson. But that temperature may well plunge to lukewarm once auds bathe in the tepid waters of “Teaching Mrs. Tingle.” What sounded like a good idea — abandoning straight-up horror for the trickier terrain of Hitchcockian character suspense and black humor — turns out to be a pat, hollow exercise with few tricks (or treats) up its sleeve. Expectations of a fresh take on the teen-revenge-fantasy formula will probably carry this writer’s directorial debut to solid opening weekend numbers. Once targeted teens start comparing notes, however, box office is likely to fall faster than class attendance during Ski Week.
Retitled from the original “Killing Mrs. Tingle” in another twitch of recent biz skittishness toward parental disapproval — indeed, nothing lethal happens here — “Teaching” revisits the time-tested conceit of a high school don so ill-tempered that he or she appears to enjoy crushing adolescent lives. The Scrooge du jour is Mrs. T. (Helen Mirren), a history prof whose personality is enough to part crowded halls in her wake, just like Moses did the Red Sea.
With a sadistic smirk, Tingle low-grades everyone save the most craven posterior-kisser (repped by Liz Stauber’s puling Trudie). Not even a dauntingly elaborate final class project can save Leigh Ann (Katie Holmes) from suffering similar abuse — despite, or perhaps due to, the fact that this one setback could end all higher-education scholarship hopes. She’s convinced the teacher has it in for her, a fear that proves all too well-founded when Mrs. T. interrupts a private tete-a-tete between the protag, aspiring-actress best friend Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan) and the latter’s hunksome “loser” crush object, Luke (Barry Watson) at an unfortunate moment when Luke has stuffed stolen final-test notes for Tingle’s course in our heroine’s backpack. Protestations of innocence fall on deaf ears.
Later that day, the three teens repair to their nemesis’ fussy, expansive home to plead their case. Things get ugly when Luke brandishes a homemade crossbow; an ensuing melee results in Mrs. T. being knocked unconscious. Thinking fast, if not too deep, the youths decide to tie the momentarily passive teacher to her bed upstairs, then “wait till she wakes up and try to reason with her.” They then take turns keeping watch over the now alert and irate kidnappee. Felonious offenses pile up as the youths’ various arguments and blackmail schemes fall inert against their immobilized quarry’s steel will.
It requires some gullibility to swallow the idea that financially deprived Leigh Ann (whose waitressing mum is played by a teary, unbilled Lesley Ann Warren) can get into college only if she’s a 4.0 valedictorian — the film seems to equate lower-middle-class status with Dickensian desperation. Then again, you might wonder why no one questions the captive teacher’s absence from school (when she’s never been sick a day in her life). Or doubt just how the rote, unsatisfactory climax ties together all messy loose ends, as we’re meant to accept.
But then the real trouble here isn’t lack of credibility so much as that of flair, narrative or otherwise — a surprise coming from Williamson, whose “Scream” pics (if not his more routine “I Know What You Did Last Summer” efforts, or “Dawson’s Creek” TV soap) seldom lacked sharp pop-culture-riffing dialogue or hairpin reversals of character fortune.
By contrast, “Mrs. Tingle” proves dismayingly uncomplicated. Once Mrs. T. gets tethered to the bedpost, the stakes don’t really ratchet upward as they ought to. Only the teacher’s plating of jealously in Jo Lynn’s mind (as Leigh Ann and Luke eventually act on their mutual attraction) fosters any dissent in the student ranks, while Coach Wenchell’s (Jeffrey Tambor) later unannounced visit reps the sole external threat.
For a thriller dependent on gimmicky confinement (following a tradition from “Rope” to “Misery”), “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” is dangerously short on left turns. A situation that should by nature grow more grotesque and deadly with each advance instead flatlines early on. Williamson’s trademark snarky humor likewise seems MIA: Coach’s absentminded “Like a Virgin” warbling is as good as it gets. When brown-nosing arch-priss Trudie discovers she’s been foiled with a substandard mark, surely the script could have contrived some riposte more flavorsome than “A B?! I don’t think so!” Further signaling creative crises are the many cute reaction shots accorded Mrs. T.’s pint-size pooch.
As one might expect, Mirren proves quite capable of lending her role a venom more velvety than it deserves — too bad the script doesn’t kick in any ante-upping resourcefulness, let alone some truly barbed one-liners. Holmes faces stiff odds locating much of interest in her bland good-girl heroine. Watson coasts on dreamboat looks as a self-pegged “bad boy” who’s hardly all that. Coughlan is OK as the flightier Jo Lynn, though she doesn’t quite have the chops to make her big comic moment (an ennui-fueled impersonation of “The Exorcist’s” possession highlights) clang the bell. Vivica A. Fox and erstwhile teen-pic staple Molly Ringwald get little to do as sidelined school staff.
Stepping behind the camera for the first time, Williamson provides pacing slick enough to keep the proceedings watchable, if not enough to make them urgent or eventful. Production design and lensing limn a standard high-gloss suburban milieu. Soundtrack is predictably packed to the gills with rock cuts, none coming off as more than gratuitous filler.