Movie reviews by Edwin Jahiel

TEACHING MRS.  TINGLE (1999) * 1/2

Written and directed by Kevin Williamson; Photography, Jerzy Zielinski.  Editing, Debra Neil-Fisher.  Production design, Naomi Shohan.  Music, John Frizzell.  Produced by Cathy Konrad.  Cast: Helen Mirren (Mrs.  Tingle), Katie Holmes (Leigh Ann Watson), Jeffrey Tambor (Coach Wenchell), Barry Watson (Luke Churner), Marisa Coughlan (Jo Lynn Jordan), Liz Stauber (Trudie Tucker), Michael McKean (Principal Potter), Molly Ringwald (Miss Banks), Vivica A.  Fox (Miss Gold).  A Dimension Films release.  93 minutes. PG-13
Kevin Williamson's first feature as director is a fizzle.  He has been one of the new,  hot  Hollywood screenwriters since 1996, beginning with Scream (and later with Scream 2).  His popular but puerile I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) deserves what a critic (in, I think, Time) wrote about  the 1965 I Saw What You Did.  His full review : " And I wish to hell I hadn't. "

In 1998 Williamson  also created the TV series "Dawson's Creek,  was an uncredited writer for Halloween H20, and  scripted The Faculty.  According to an AP story  "much of his work is based on things that really happened to him. " In particular, a high school teacher described as a true monster crushed all his hopes for becoming a writer.  The discouragement was repeated in a college writing class.  Poor Kevin! But at least and at last  his deep traumas found their way into his eventual success as a writer, and certainly in his creation of the revenge movie Teaching Mrs.  Tingle which centers on a small town school's history teacher from Hell.

American high school pictures are a genre with hundreds of entries, especially following the success of the appealing Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).  Most of them try to be amusing and depict students doing anything except studying and learning.   In the light as well as in the few "serious" pictures the teachers are the victims of their classes.  The grandpa of such works may be the famous The Blackboard Jungle (1955) whose screening at the Cannes Festival brought out protests by Americans because "of the bad name it gave U. S.  schools. "
Teaching Mrs.  Tingle turns the tables on most high-school films, as Mrs. T. , a martinet and a tyrant, is the persecutor of the kids.

The title was originally Killing Mrs.  Tingle, but given the increasing rash of real-life school killings, it was changed.  There may be a loss of audience among some amateurs of teacher-murder, but since there are no corpses in the film, "Teaching" is a better title and has the benefit of catchy alliteration.  Yet even then, the name Tingle sends the wrong message.  It would have been fine if it evoked someone who does things to you, such as appeal or titillation.

On the other hand, could this be an attempt at irony, which is something that Mrs.  T  likes to define, and to dispense nastily and sarcastically to all: students, staff, colleagues, administrators --and most likely to grocery clerks, waiters, salespeople and everybody else.  Worse yet, she's a master of put-downs which inevitably make all wilt in her presence and all hate her.   She even uses her unpleasantness to get her wishes via innuendoes, as when she blackmails the principal whose secret (he's in Alcoholics Anonymous) she knows.

The story.  Graduating Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes) is the top candidate for valedictorian.  All she needs is another A, which will get her a college scholarship - indispensable, since her mother (a single) does not have the means to pay tuition.

The girl slaves over a first-rate project for her history class which she presents to Mrs. Tingle.  Probably jealous of Leigh's looks and promising future, and, as later revealed,  frustrated by her own life (she was herself a student in that school and had been unable to leave that small town), Mrs T deprecates the project and gives Leigh a grade of C.

Desperate Leigh and her best friend Marisa (a lively actress wannabe), run into classmate Barry, a good-looking slacker on whom Marisa has a crush.  He has just gotten an illegal copy of the history final.   Horrified, Leigh takes it away from him, puts it in her bag.  In one of the first artificial developments of the movie, Mrs.  T walks in, somehow spots the exam, and guarantees expulsion for Leigh.

The youngsters, trying vainly to explain Leigh's innocence, have to resort to a visit to Mrs.  T's home but the teacher, considering them as invaders, throws them out.

And here begin a dumb, dull, unreal chain of events that do not deserve analysis.  Fake semi-climaxes follow one another.  The status of the kids goes from bad to worse after they tie Mrs.  T to her bed.  For three (I believe, but who cares?) days, during which Mrs.  T gets fed but never goes to the bathroom.  Involved, among other artifacts and events are a crossbow (sic), the loss of Leigh's presumed virginity, and a visit by  Mrs.  T's secret lover, or at least sex partner.  He goes by the nickname Spanky, which gives you a clue about the couple's activities.  The man is an awfully  unlikely a choice.  I will not reveal who plays him except that it 's a waste of an actor who has been marvelous on cable TV.

The movie is a waste of the audience's time and of the performers' abilities, including Molly Ringwald.  She has been relegated to a tiny, innocuous part as office help and substitute teacher.  Michael McKean, that superbly versatile actor of film (Coneheads, etc. , etc. ) and TV (Brian Benben's Aussie boss in HBO's Dream On) has a mere cameo, which cries out for expansion.  Otherwise, the movie belongs entirely to Ms Mirren.

England's  Helen Mirren has been on much TV and many films for decades.  She is a great actress who, in the USA at least, in spite of dozens of movies in which she held main or supporting roles, is far from a household name.  The reasons? She is a mature woman and not the regulation gorgeous chick.  Not all of her films have been displayed, and if so, insufficiently.  Many of the best were specialty  "art" items: The Long Good Friday,  Cal, Pascali's Island, The Cook The Thief His Wife and her Lover, Some Mother's Son, and others.   She eventually acquired some name recognition through  The Madness of King George and the several Prime Suspect TV series (as Detective, then Superintendent Jane Tennison)

Her Mrs. Tingle showcases her talent.  Not only as a demonic teacher, but as a diabolical captive who manipulates her captors with speech --while tied to her bed.  Proud, coaxing, menacing, scheming, attempting to disunite the youngsters, and eventually pathetic, she does not merely steal the show, she IS the show.  But even Ms. Mirren cannot save this concoction where contrived drama and would-be humor co-exist without ever hitting their marks.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie reviews by Edwin Jahiel