Contempt, dressed in a variety of guises (mockery, irony, mayhem), is now, for the first time, the dominant mode in pop culture. Teaching Mrs. Tingle, which celebrates the violent revenge exacted by three high school seniors on their monstrous sadist of a history teacher (naturally, she deserves what she gets – the bitch!), is a derisively vicious show-off satire, a plastic exercise in authority bashing that’s like ”Misery” scripted by a witless John Hughes imitator. That this is the first picture directed by writer/youth mogul Kevin Williamson (”Scream,” ”Dawson’s Creek”) is a little depressing. From the outset, the audience is invited to whoop and cackle, to jeer along with the movie, and at it as well. Catching Williamson’s fashionable wave of misanthropy and experiencing ”Tingle” as a bludgeoningly mean-spirited and disposable piece of trash are, in effect, one and the same thing.
Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren), who envies her students and therefore yearns to see them fail, is a wicked cartoon curmudgeon – spinsterish and repressed, her every utterance a poisoned bonbon of sarcasm. (Even the great Helen Mirren, declaiming her lines like Lady Macbeth, can’t lend the role any shadings.) In the week leading up to graduation, Leigh Ann (Katie Holmes), whose chance to become valedictorian and win a college scholarship hinges on her acing Mrs. Tingle’s class, is caught with her best friend, Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlin), and Luke (Barry Watson), the boy they both have crushes on, in a scandalous situation that’s more innocent than it appears. They go over to Mrs. Tingle’s house to beg for mercy, and, met with her stare of delighted scorn, they end up tying her, bondage style, to her Victorian bed frame. There follows much hyperbolic malice involving everything from naughty blackmail photos to whizzing crossbow arrows.
Coughlin, at one point, does a nifty impersonation of Regan MacNeil’s libidinous croak in ”The Exorcist,” but otherwise the picture is broad, one-note, and oddly sluggish. It’s an overcooked casserole of macabre-farce mischief that recalls, more than anything, the scattershot Grand Guignol high jinks of ”Jawbreaker” and ”Idle Hands.” We’re encouraged to thirst for Mrs. Tingle’s blood, yet the heroes, too, are presented with a blasé shrug – the same cold-shoulder flippancy that characterizes the teen ciphers in the slasher movies Williamson made his name parodying. Just about everyone on screen gets treated like dog meat, and that, in essence, is the film’s appeal: its knee-jerk snideness.
I wasn’t shocked by anything in ”Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” yet I was startled to see that Williamson, whose best work has melded humanity with a kind of media-savvy meta-playfulness, could make a movie that dances so clumsily on the grave of empathy, pandering to the worst instincts in young audiences. (If they’re raised on a steady diet of films like ”Tingle,” I dread to imagine the mosh pits of Woodstock 2009.) Then again, perhaps this is just the new hipness: a detachment so complete it can’t imagine anything between a scream and a sneer.