"Teaching Mrs. Tingle," a dark comedy about school kids' revenge visited on a particularly nasty teacher, shares something in common with Lake Placid and Deep Blue Sea, this summer's other most moronic horror flicks: The potential victims are such easy, imbecilic prey that one can't help but secretly hope that the monsters -- a crocodile, several sharks and a sneering educator, respectively -- cause a little carnage before it's all over.
Helen Mirren, as the high-school history teacher you love to hate, makes a magnificent villain in this directorial debut from Kevin Williamson, a screenwriter who apparently has carte blanche in Hollywood, thanks to the box-office success of the various "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer movies."
Mirren's Eve Tingle is all business, buttoned up in a dark suit and striding through the hallways as kids scramble to get out of her way, in an effect akin to Moses' parting of the Red Sea. Then it's on to sadistic pleasure, as Mrs. Tingle proceeds to heap scorn on her cowering young charges. The kids, cardboard cutouts rather than believable characters, one by one succumb to the instructor's emotional torture following their presentation of semester projects.
Token slacker Luke Churner (Barry Watson of television's "Seventh Heaven") is criticized as the underachieving son of an underachiever. "He, too, had the words 'no future' painted on his forehead," Mrs. Tingle sneers. Wannabe actress Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan) is verbally abused for her awful impression of Marilyn Monroe. And honor student Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes of Williamson's "Dawson's Creek" television series), the smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks, faces similar treatment after turning in a fictitious diary of a 17th-century victim of the Salem witch trials.
Mrs. Tingle is the contemporary broomstick flyer in need of a stake and a fire, and her fate is sealed soon enough, when she falsely accuses Leigh Ann of cheating. That may mean that the earnest straight arrow -- as opposed to snobby, rich, smart rival Marybeth Carter (Liz Stauber) -- won't be named valedictorian, and thus will miss out on an all-important scholarship. Williamson's logic has it that Leigh Ann won't be able to afford college otherwise. Perhaps she hasn't heard of community colleges or state universities.
The solution to the kids' predicament, of course, is to visit Mrs. Tingle's huge, Tudor-style home, plead for mercy and, when that doesn't work, tie her up and steal her grade book. That's when the real fun begins, as the teacher engages in a war of wills with her captors, engaging in mind games and lobbing criticisms that cause Leigh Ann, Jo Lynn and Luke to wither under her harsh spell.
The able Jeffrey Tambor, Michael McKean, Lesley Ann Warren and former teen star Molly Ringwald all show up for brief, humorous bits. But Mirren, the British actress so superb in everything from Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" to the BBC's "Prime Suspect" series, is pure evil here, and her performance is the only thing that makes the otherwise insipid Teaching Mrs. Tingle worth watching.
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