In just three years as a Hollywood screenwriter, Kevin Williamson already has a problematic cultural legacy. I've been a fan ever since Williamson arrived in 1996 with the script for Wes Craven's "Scream," which brought a much-needed jolt of pop-culture electricity and narrative imagination to the tired horror genre. OK, he's no Ben Hecht or Dalton Trumbo, but Williamson respects the desires of his teenage audience while refusing to insult their intelligence. From the "Scream" films to "I Know What You Did Last Summer" to "The Faculty" to his hit TV series "Dawson's Creek," Williamson has demonstrated a remarkable grasp of the conventions of genre storytelling. He often bends them, in surprising and wildly improbable directions, but he understands that you should rarely, if ever, break them. For better or worse, Williamson (who is now 34) will always be associated with the late-'90s explosion of teen culture, much of it blatantly exploitative and created without the slightest hint of his attention to craft and detail. What will he be doing in five years, when this boomlet has faded?
As if anticipating this question, Williamson has now directed his first film, which is also, apparently, the first screenplay he ever completed, years before "Scream" meant that everyone in Hollywood would return his calls. Although it has certain trappings of the horror picture -- a high school setting, a monster capable of warping our young heroes' minds, a tense confrontation in a Victorian house -- it's a far messier and more personal kind of movie than anything Williamson has tried before, closer to psychodrama than to genre formula. Frankly, "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" -- which once, in the long-ago pre-Columbine era, was called "Killing Mrs. Tingle" -- should have stayed in that desk drawer, loved by its author in secret. It ends up as a wildly uneven and sloppily directed movie, full of clashing tones and undigested bits of superior films. At one point, aspiring actress Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan) kills some screen time by re-enacting one of Linda Blair's demonic-possession scenes from "The Exorcist." All right, it's hilarious, but when one of your best moments involves shamelessly ripping off another movie, you're in trouble.
I guess it seemed like a good idea to import English actress Helen Mirren (hard-ass Inspector Jane Tennison of the terrific "Prime Suspect" series) as the fearsome Mrs. Tingle, a high school history teacher set on destroying the life of aspiring writer Leigh Ann (Katie Holmes of "Dawson's Creek"). Actually, it still seems like a good idea, but it doesn't work. Mirren seems to have gotten lost midway across the Atlantic and borrowed Meryl Streep's phony-baloney natural accent for the occasion. She never looks or sounds like someone who grew up in the nowheresville town of Grandsboro and never got out, and without a convincing back story Mrs. Tingle is nothing more than a sadistic monster. That's OK, lurking in the background of a horror movie -- in fact, it's what you want -- but it's definitely unsatisfactory as the dominant figure in a character-driven battle of wits.
Mirren is such an imperious presence that she almost makes the character work despite the lack of focus in her performance and in Williamson's script. Behind her flinty, intelligent eyes, you can always see that Mrs. Tingle is thinking, which is a lot more than you can say about Leigh Ann and Jo Lynn. This adorably pug-nosed duo goes over to Mrs. Tingle's house one night, along with Luke (Barry Watson), the male-model type they're both hot for, and a somewhat confusing agenda. On one hand, Mrs. Tingle has given Leigh Ann a bad grade for no reason, and if Leigh Ann doesn't get an A she won't be valedictorian and won't get a college scholarship and will wind up waiting tables like her single mom (Lesley Ann Warren). Now, you could argue that if she's really so smart and so broke, she'd get a scholarship someplace even as salutatorian, but let's move on. Secondly, Mrs. Tingle has accused Leigh Ann of cheating, which everybody knows isn't true although the evidence is damning (dumb-ass Luke stashed a stolen exam in her backpack).
In the great thriller tradition of a group of bumblers making a bad situation worse -- ` la the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple" and Williamson's own "I Know What You Did Last Summer" -- in short order the three musketeers have knocked Mrs. Tingle out with a crossbow bolt and tied her to her bed. For the next several days, they dither about what to do with her while she tries to drive a wedge between the two girls over their mutual lust for Luke. (And the whole time, apparently, Mrs. Tingle never has to pee.) Williamson summons up self-conscious echoes of both "Misery" and "The Exorcist," along with every other captive-captor psychological struggle in film history. But for my money, the film hints at a far more interesting direction when it becomes clear that Mrs. Tingle relishes this warfare, and that her sadism may contain elements of masochism. She's revealed to be wearing a plunging, lacy bra and to be enjoying a slightly kinky affair with the married football coach (Jeffrey Tambor), but ultimately Williamson shies away from making Mrs. Tingle a more libidinous and hence more dangerous character. This is just one of the many ways "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" feels like a confused first draft by a talented young writer.
We're clearly supposed to identify with the wronged Leigh Ann and her struggle to overcome her fears of intimacy, growing up and Mrs. Tingle, in approximately that order. But Holmes -- there's no nice way to say this -- is hopelessly lost trying to play a tormented smart kid, and Williamson's script doesn't help. Leigh Ann mostly comes off as an unimaginative goody-two-shoes whose thinking is miles behind Mrs. Tingle's and who only evades her clutches through sheer luck. Jo Lynn, a shameless ham and sexpot (who is horrified to realize that Mrs. Tingle has no television), is a character who plays to Williamson's strengths as a writer, and Coughlan's joyful performance is one of the film's few unalloyed delights. Viewers of my generation will be appropriately horrified to see Vivica A. Fox and Molly Ringwald in brief cameos as teachers(!). As for Williamson, this chaotic muddle -- which can't decide whether to be dark horror-drama or cartoon-violent pastiche, and tries to nibble little bits of each -- shouldn't slow down his screenwriting career too much. But if he really wants to transcend his "I Heard You Scream at Dawson's Creek" niche, he's going to have to identify his own internal Mrs. Tingle, and figure out what she really wants.