Teaching Mrs Tingle is a big disappointment – hardly the directorial debut for young Kevin Williamson expected by fans of Scream (1996), which he wrote.
The worst thing about this movie is its contrived, bitsy air – as if Williamson tried to combine the frissons of his horror projects with the teen sentimentality of his television hit Dawson's Creek, and then threw in a homage to such 1960s crossover films as The Collector (1965) for artistic credibility.
Teaching Mrs Tingle begins promisingly with Clueless-style banter between teenagers Leigh (Katie Holmes) and Jo (Marisa Coughlan), as they swoon over the school hunk, Luke (Barry Watson). Where Jo is the superficial, drama-student type, Leigh is the ambitious, intellectual achiever – but her scholastic plans are threatened by the fearsome history teacher, Mrs Tingle (Helen Mirren).
The bulk of the story is devoted to a fierce battle of wits between Tingle – made a prisoner in her own home – and the teen trio. Mirren is in fine form, but overall this is a film seriously lacking in oomph.
Like his mentor, Scream director Wes Craven, Williamson tries to do without baroque, flashy camera tricks. But, in the absence of Craven's mastery of rhythm and tone, this straight approach simply falls flat.
Williamson is the leader of a generation of storytellers acclaimed as the ironic know-alls of pop culture. And yes, it's true, Teaching Mrs Tingle is full of quotations from other movies, and reflexive games with its own clichés and stereotypes, all designed to flatter those viewers hip to the references and jokes.
But so what? This film brought home to me the problem with postmodern smartness: it is a form of sophistication utterly lacking in subtlety or suggestion. Williamson has apparently never heard of subtext, the art of concealing or understating an idea.
If he uses irony, he has his characters labour the point by discussing dictionary definitions of the term. When he alludes to The Exorcist (1973) in the image of Tingle tied to a bed, he is not content to let the viewer grasp this connection: these teens not only explicate the reference, but drearily act it out as well.
Teaching Mrs Tingle has some felicitous moments – particularly in the casual way Williamson plants plot details that later assume striking prominence. But this craft (plus a cameo from the divine Molly Ringwald) merely embroiders a vacuum – and a not very entertaining or glamorous vacuum, at that.
© Adrian Martin October 1999