Kevin Williamson rocketed from the margins of Hollywood with his script for the original “Scream”. With varying degrees, he was involved with the scripts or stories to “I Know What You Did Last Summer”, “Halloween: H20”, “The Faculty”, and the sequels to “Scream”. He has developed two TV shows, “Dawson’s Creek” and the upcoming “Wasteland”. Now he’s taken a screenplay he wrote prior to “Scream” and directed his first feature. In “Teaching Mrs. Tingle”, Williamson loosely draws from a relationship he had with a teacher in high school. Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes) is perpetually scared of doing the wrong thing. The poor child of a single-mom waitress, she desperately needs to graduate valedictorian to win a much needed college scholarship. Standing in her way is her demonic history teacher, Mrs. Eve Tingle (Helen Mirren). Bitter, lonely, and sadistic, Tingle cackles at the mere thought of the young girl’s failure.
Bad boy Luke Churner (Barry Watson) has had a crush on Leigh Ann, but he doesn’t fit into her “good girl” plan. When he steals a copy of the history final to help her and her best friend Jo Lynn Jordan (Marisa Coughlan), the trio are caught by an overjoyed Tingle gloating over their imminent demise. When the kids go to the teacher’s house to talk it out, events turn ugly. Our “heroes” end up holding their nemesis hostage in her own house. The real battle begins.
Is it any good? Well, no. In directing his own script, Williamson really needed an impartial voice to critique the script. The pacing bogs down, particularly in the opening scene, and the tone is all over the place. Tingle is quite vicious in a school setting, but the kids are too self-absorbed to learn anything anyway. The director seems to have a lesson for both the teacher AND the students, but it’s never clear whether either pick it up.
Another problem is casting. The kids are fine in their roles, but Helen Mirren, maybe the greatest living actress today, smokes the rest of the cast. Not one to turn her nose up at anything (she was in “Caligula”), her resume is strangely light on comedy. As such, she tends to underplay for nuance when broader strokes might have worked better. I don’t know if someone more experienced in big, comedic villains like Kathleen Turner or Glenn Close would have been more effective. The end result is that Mirren, who single-handedly gave a heart to a Peter Greenaway film (“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover”), becomes the most likeable character in the movie. It doesn’t make you long for her comeuppance.
In deference to Kevin Williamson, the writer seems to have taken on far too many projects. At the time he was working on this film, he was wrapping up his final season on “Dawson’s Creek”, developing “Wasteland” for this fall, and trying to find time to write the third “Scream” movie (script chores were eventually passed to someone else). A lot to buzz around your head while directing your first feature. Something had to suffer. Let’s hope that next time the movie has his undivided attention before it attempts to retain ours.