`Scream' writer Williamson fails again with `Mrs. Tingle'

August 20, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Someone stop Kevin Williamson before he commits another movie.

Granted, Williamson hit a hip, self-referential nerve with his post-modern horror comedy "Scream." But ever since that smart cinematic in-joke became a surprise hit, Williamson has been hitting the same note over and over, whether with "I Know What You Did Last Summer" or "The Faculty," both of which he wrote.

With "Teaching Mrs. Tingle," Williamson makes his debut as a director, an outing that should caution all those screenwriters out there who are convinced that they should be directing. They shouldn't. Or at least Williamson shouldn't. For that matter, he shouldn't be writing, at least until he can come up with something other than an iteration of his same, tired theme.

In "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" (which was called "Killing Mrs. Tingle" until events in Littleton, Colo., made Miramax reconsider that title), Katie Holmes plays Leigh Ann Watson, an honors student who desperately needs an A in history in order to get a scholarship, attend college and get out of the two-bit town she's grown up in. The only thing standing in her way is the dreaded Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren), a nasty educatrix who relishes every chance she gets to ridicule, upbraid and otherwise verbally abuse her students.

When Leigh Ann, her best friend Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan) and the broad-shouldered bad boy Luke (Barry Watson) are discovered with a stolen history test, Tingle does the expected, expelling the students and relegating Leigh Ann to a life of "Do you want fries with that?" But in a quintessentially Williamsonian turn, the threesome decide to fight back and -- through a series of misunderstandings -- wind up threatening Tingle with a crossbow, tying her up and taking her hostage for a gruesome few days.

Written with only occasional flashes of intelligence and directed with leaden predictability, "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" is a mean-hearted, ham-handed and gratuitous effort to exploit its teen-age audience's conviction that, underneath it all, teachers really do hate them.

Holmes, a veteran of Williamson's hit TV series "Dawson's Creek," does her best to light up a dreary role, and Coughlan has one of the movie's few genuinely funny moments in an inspired riff on "The Exorcist."

But even a cameo by Molly Ringwald -- who presumably is meant to pass the torch officially from John Hughes to Williamson -- doesn't manage to elicit a smile. What really hurts is seeing the venerable Mirren in a movie so far beneath her. At one point Mrs. Tingle explains why she hates her students so much, telling her captors that their generation is lazy, greedy and morally corrupt. "I despise you," she hisses. Looking at "Teaching Mrs. Tingle," it's hard to disagree with her.

`Teaching Mrs. Tingle'

Starring Katie Holmes, Barry Watson, Marisa Coughlan, Helen Mirren

Directed by Kevin Williamson

Released by Dimension Films

Rated PG-13 (thematic content, violence, sexuality, language and some teen drinking)

Running time: 93 minutes

Sun score: *

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