His scripts have never been all that solid -- just clever and creatively ironic -- and the habitual, but somehow forgivable, faults of his other movies (massive plot holes, easy outs the characters are too dumb to take) are all the more conspicuous in this old script pulled out of mothballs for the writer's directorial debut.
But, like most of Williamson's work, "Tingle" is a guilty pleasure, the kind of dumb fun picture people loathe to admit they like.
Williamson's personal teenage It Girl, Katie Holmes, stars as Leigh Ann Watson, a studious, virginal high school senior from a home supported by a waitressing mom (Lesley Ann Warren). Afraid of finding herself on the same path, Leigh Ann is counting on an academic scholarship to get her out of this dead-end, Midwestern berg.
So when Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren) -- the school's most disdained teacher who strikes terror in the hearts of her history classes -- walks in on Leigh Ann holding a pilfered copy of her final exam, the poor girl knows that the truth -- that she was refusing to take the offered crib -- isn't going to wash. After all, Mrs. Tingle is a merciless, sour-pussed instructor with a cruel wit, a mean streak a mile wide and sore spot for goodie-goodies like Leigh Ann, who gives 150-percent on every assignment.
For her final project in Tingle's class, she not only created a fact-based journal of a 17th Century girl accused of witchcraft, but she wrote it on parchment with a quill pen and bound it in aged leather. Tingle gave her a C.
So our innocent realizes she's going to have to resort to more drastic measures to rescue herself from academic scandal. With her guilty friends in tow -- Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan), a tarty and untalented aspiring actress, and Luke (Barry Watson), a generic, pretty-faced, bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks -- she pays Tingle a visit at home, where failed persuasion and desperation lead to an ill-advised hostage situation, attempted blackmail and a battle of wits in which Tingle definitely has the upper hand.
The demographic for "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" may be the "Scream"/"Dawson's Creek" crowd, but it's the middle-aged Mirren who runs away with the movie.
An Oscar-caliber actress who obviously saw the fun she was going to have taking a role like this, Mirren really digs in to the malevolent meat of her delightfully dastardly pedagogue. She marches down locker-lined hallways in the movie's opening moments (to mock Wicked Witch of the West music, no less) with terrified students literally lunging out of her way. She delights in ruthlessly ripping into insecure kids. She's the worst teacher you ever had, the way she appeared in your nightmares.
And she's completely nonplused by this trio of amateur teenage terrorists trying to teach her a lesson. With faux concern barely masking a venomous grin, Tingle manipulates her captors, taking cheap digs ("My poor dear. I hope you're a good waitress," she snipes at the rotten little actress), planting guilt pangs in their upright ring leader, turning the girls against each other over their mutual interest in Luke and dredging up Leigh Ann's deepest fears of wasting her life in a name-tag job.
Part low-stress thriller, part dark comedy, "Tingle" is an odd mix of moods that frequently don't mesh, especially in the last act when the movie starts to unravel as the kids brainstorm idiotic ideas for getting out of this mess. Dirty pictures with the football coach? Come on!
But if you listen to the rumor mill, you know this partial collapse may have been the result the movie being dry-docked for uplifting alterations in the wake of the Columbine High massacre.
Whether such softening hurt or help the movie, the end result, while tolerably tedious, is certainly more palatable than the alternative implied by the film's original title -- "Killing Mrs. Tingle."
Production compaines: Dimension Films, Konrad Pictures, Interscope Communications
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Director: Kevin Williamson
Starring: Helen Mirren as Mrs. Eve Tingle, Katie Holmes as Leigh Ann Watson, Jeffrey Tambor as Coach 'Spanky' Wenchell, Molly Ringwald as Miss Banks, Vivica A. Fox as Miss Gold, Marisa Coughlan as Jo Lynn Jordan, Barry Watson as Luke Churner