“The smartest girl in school caught cheating. It’ll be scandalous.”
We have another Scream! Yes, the iconic series created by director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson has returned for yet another blood-spattered whodunnit, courtesy of the infamous Ghostface. The original gang and some new faces are all there for what is undoubtedly the first in a new era of Scream movies. This new installment is everything a Scream fan would want it to be, including a script full of nods to past films, genuine characters palpable suspense and some incredibly fun kills. It’s a great tribute to the monster Craven and Williamson brought to life back in 1996.
While most people have been gearing up to the release of Scream by marathoning the chapters which came before, I instead decided to revisit Teaching Mrs. Tingle, the dark comedy/thriller written and directed by Williamson. Released just before the start of my senior year, this small 1999 release may have been a flop, but it remains as devilishly fun all these years later.
High school senior Leigh Ann’s (Katie Holmes) future is all but set. She’s pretty much guaranteed to be valedictorian and will more than likely get the scholarship she needs to go to the top school of her choice. But when a misunderstanding involving best friend Jo Lyn (Marisa Coughlin) and bad boy Luke (Barry Watson) ends up with her inadvertently getting caught with the answer key to Mrs. Tingle’s (Helen Mirren) history final, Leigh Ann’s future immediately becomes uncertain. Intending to reason with the most despised teacher in school, the three students go to her home where an unexpected scuffle leads to them accidentally taking their teacher hostage. Having to think quickly, they devise a ruse to explain her absence, which they think they can pull off…that is, if they don’t come undone by Mrs. Tingle’s mind games first.
Black comedy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially when it comes to a movie that positions itself as a strict thriller. Don’t get me wrong; Teaching Mrs. Tingle is a thriller and very solid one if I do say so myself. Even though our bad guy is tied to a bed for most of it, the mental games she plays and the way she is able to manipulate through the situation through mere glances gives the movie just as many thrills as a killer on the loose in the house. But Williams is a writer above all else, which means that despite the many cat-and-mouse moments, there’s a bevy of great dialogue to be had here, most of which comes courtesy of the wicked titular character.
When a student apologizes for not thinking, Mrs. Tingle interjects: “No, because that would require a cerebrum, and a few other missing parts.” When she compliments someone on their sobriety, it comes with a noticeable sting: “Well congratulations, that’s quite an accomplishment,” she says. “Just think, not one sip of alcohol in over four years, that’s almost… unbelievable.” Williamson saves Mrs. Tingle’s most telling barbs for her exchanges with Leigh Ann. Even though the latter has the former tied up and at her mercy, the teacher still has the upper hand. “You’re so scared I can smell it,” she says with a coy smile. “Your fear is the most predictable thing about you.” Such words are made all the more cutting thanks to Mirren’s delivery of them and Teaching Mrs. Tingle gleefully becomes a more subversive movie with each one.
Loathed and feared by faculty and students alike, Mrs. Tingle is the school’s most formidable presence; a woman who seems to take pleasure in tormenting those who come in her way. She may have been conjured up by Williamson’s imagination, but no doubt she’s based on someone from his own past. I’m certain there’s hardly anyone who hasn’t had a Mrs. Tingle in their life at one point or another, be they a teacher, a relative, neighbor or boss. The memory of that person, whatever their intentions may have been, lives on through whatever torment and unease was felt at the mere sight of them. It’s this universal element that makes Teaching Mrs. Tingle such a cathartic experience. Yes, it’s a bit far-fetched, but it does echo the fantasy everyone has had at one time or another of confronting their tormentor.
Where the torment becomes real here is in Mrs. Tingle’s admission that she wants Leigh Ann to fail. “You present yourself with such self-assured tenacity, but your fear shows around the edges,” Mrs. Tingle tells her. “You can do better.” The actual resentment, disdain and all around contempt Mrs. Tingle displays towards her students, especially Leigh Ann, in the third act is when the film really goes deep. How many students around the world have felt hated by a teacher? Too many to count, probably. How many have had that feeling verified by the teacher themselves? Less, I’m sure. But to see such a scenario play out in Williamson’s hands gives off its own kind of special terror, one that goes beyond the image of the boogeyman and paints a portrait of a different kind of monster altogether.
The three camera-ready leads are all appropriately photogenic and watchable here. Beyond just being prime examples of the kinds of late teen faces that dominated the WB era, each one manages to understand and execute the specific brand of dark humor Williamson is going for. They’re joined by some really great actors in smaller roles, including Lesley Ann Warren, Michael McKean (we love a Clue reunion), Molly Ringwald, Vivica A. Fox and Jeffrey Tambor. But Mirren is the reason Teaching Mrs. Tingle remains as delicious as it is. The actress has so much fun as the baddie, cherishing every manipulative and passive aggressive line she’s given to recite. Playing Mrs. Tingle as a Viola Swamp kind of terror would have been too easy, and Mirren must have known this. Instead, she plays her as a real person filled with anger, perverse humor and a slight sadistic quality that makes her impossible to resist on the screen.
Teaching Mrs. Tingle should have brought Williamson more rewards than it did. But 1999 audiences weren’t too quick to embrace a genre blend like this and the movie quickly came and went as a result. Pulling double duty on his pet project meant Williamson had to give up the reigns on writing Scream 3, a move which caused that movie to suffer greatly. Whether or not the sacrifice was worth it remains up for some serious debates among Scream fans and those who have helped make Teaching Mrs. Tingle a cult classic, albeit a small one. Williamson hasn’t directed since, a fact saddens me. For a moment in time, the writer was one of the key voices in the world of late 90s horror. Scream 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty and the unfairly treated Cursed; each were solidly made movies that mixed a pop-savvy awareness with genuine fright and suspense. Williamson’s career eventually changed courses, but it never stopped. However, I know there’s an entire generation that is forever eagerly awaiting the return of his uniquely demented voice to the genre he helped revolutionize.