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Weekly Alibi Teaching Mrs. Tingle

Tingle All the Way

By Devin D. O'Leary

AUGUST 23, 1999:  Teaching Mrs. Tingle is the kind of film that's best taken with a grain of salt. And if that salt is liberally sprinkled over a large bucket of popcorn, all the better. Tingle is the brainchild of Kevin Williamson, the hot young pencil-pusher behind Scream 1, 2 (and soon-to-be) 3, plus teen TV soapers "Dawson's Creek" and the fall-debuting "Wasteland." Anyone who's sampled Williamson's wares knows he traffics in a kind of snarky, self-referential world populated by uncharacteristically verbose teenagers. Sample "Dawson's Creek" dialogue: "Like all great romantics, Shakespeare realized that love was a lot more likely to end with a bunch of dead Danes than with a kiss."

In a theater packed full of appreciative teens, Williamson's directing debut, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, will probably play rather well. Taken on its own terms, the film is a corny, occasionally fun high school revenge fantasy. With a quick trip to the concession stands and a mind free from expectations, viewers can comfortably settle in for some silly, teen-based entertainment. But no amount of Dr. Pepper-fueled, midnight movie mindlessness can raise the film much above its "Goosebumps goes PG-13" level.

Distinguished British actress Helen Mirren (The Madness of King George) opts for a little escapism on her résumé in taking on the title role of Mrs. Eve Tingle, an impossibly witchy high school history teacher and the bane of every senior's existence at tiny Grandsboro High. Katie Holmes ("Dawson's Creek") is Leigh Ann, a smart, sincere girl from a broken home who's determined to become class valedictorian, land a college scholarship and escape her dead-end hometown. Leigh Ann is also the prime target of Mrs. Tingle's nasty, unprovoked wrath. Seems that Leigh Ann is just a couple points behind the class suck-up on the old GPA. Only Mrs. Tingle's final history grade stands between Leigh Ann and her dreams of college stardom. Things aren't looking too promising to begin with for our heroine, but when a set of stolen test answers gets Leigh Ann falsely accused of cheating, things take a nasty turn.

Leigh Ann, her drama queen pal Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan, soon to debut on "Wasteland") and the hunky high school loner Luke (Barry Watson) go to Tingle's house in hopes of talking the insufferable instructor out of expelling Leigh Ann. Of course, things go horribly wrong, and Tingle ends up shot with a crossbow (don't ask) and tied Linda Blair-style to her bed. In a panic now, and fearful of police intervention, the kids wrack their brains for some method of blackmailing Tingle into not pressing assault charges.

As the last few days of school tick away, the troubled trio takes turns guarding the trussed-up Tingle. For her part, Tingle tries to psychologically manipulate her captors into turning on each other. Why any of these kids would listen to, much less believe, a word their evil, hated enemy has to say isn't quite clear. Nonetheless, before long, the teens are playing a jealousy-based game of "Who Do You Trust," and it is the "helpless" captive who seems to have the upper hand.

Teaching Mrs. Tingle could have been a clever little thriller, but is hamstrung by some ludicrous situations. Toward the end, Williamson allows the mood to degrade from taut thriller to campy horror. The sight of an elderly history teacher stalking around a dark mansion and beating the crap out of some healthy teenagers is more likely to inspire giggles than gasps. Williamson has always flavored his horror with humor, but when he wants this film to have punch, it just isn't there. There are a few genuinely amusing bits in Teaching Mrs. Tingle. Marisa Coughlan's over-the-top imitation of The Exorcist is one highlight. Casting former teen idol Molly Ringwald as a substitute teacher certainly indicates that Williamson isn't trying too hard to be serious here. Most of the laughs, though, are likely to generate from the film's dumber elements. The less said about the film's climax, for example, the better.

In the meantime, Williamson's fans can at least curb their appetites on this silly chiller until "Wasteland" debuts in September and Scream 3 lands in theaters this Christmas.

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