Cinema Fearité presents 'Teaching Mrs. Tingle'
Kevin Williamson cashes in on both his 'Scream' and 'Dawson's Creek' successes with 'Teaching Mrs. Tingle.'
With the exception of a handful of classic releases like Nightbreed and Event Horizon, the nineties are considered by many fans to be a horror movies wasteland. But the advent of Wes Craven’s Scream in 1996 did start a fun little trend of hip, teen-oriented horror flicks that hold up surprisingly well, movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and Soul Survivors. Frequently lost among these pop-horror flicks is the understated and underrated gem Teaching Mrs. Tingle.
Teaching Mrs. Tingle is about a high school senior named Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) who is counting on being school valedictorian in order to get a scholarship to a good college. When she finds out that she is getting a C in a history class taught by the strict and stern Mrs. Tingle (Winchester’s Helen Mirren), she panics. Her delinquent friend, Luke (Boogeyman’s Barry Watson), steals the answer key to the final, but Leigh Ann is adamant about not cheating. Of course, Mrs. Tingle catches them with the key, so they’re in trouble either way.
To solve their problem, Leigh Ann and Luke, along with Leigh Ann’s thespian friend Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan from Gossip) who has a crush on Luke, decide to go to Mrs. Tingle’s house and convince her that Leigh Ann is innocent. Things get out of hand when Mrs. Tingle is accidentally knocked unconscious, and the three friends find themselves inadvertently holding their teacher hostage. Of course, Mrs. Tingle is a clever woman, and her mind games soon have Leigh Ann, Luke, and Jo Lynn questioning their friendships and their loyalties.
The similarities in tone between Teaching Mrs. Tingle and the Scream movies are easily explained by the fact that writer Kevin Williamson was behind both projects. The first (and so far only) directorial effort by Williamson, Teaching Mrs. Tingle is a relatively tame mystery that owes as much to Alfred Hitchcock as it does to Wes Craven. It’s light on actual bloodshed, but its heavy on intrigue and cunning, and it’s got a seriously sinister undertone of black comedy.
Teaching Mrs. Tingle is the epitome of the nineties teen horror craze. Between the slashery terror of the Scream/I Know What You Did Last Summer franchises and the sugary nostalgia of “Dawson’s Creek,” Kevin Williamson had his finger on the pulse of the American teenager, and his movies were unsurprisingly relatable. His characters, almost exclusively high school students, faced the typical adolescent problems such as unfaithful boy/girlfriends and neglectful parental figures. But they also encountered the darker side of life, so there was always a young adult thriller vibe to his movies. And Young Adult Thriller is the perfect description of Teaching Mrs. Tingle.
And then there’s the cast. Like all of the nineties YA thrillers, Teaching Mrs. Tingle boasts a cast full of hot and fresh young faces. Williamson knew Katie Holmes from “Dawson’s Creek,” and the young starlet had already proven herself in the teen horror world with the previous year’s Disturbing Behavior. Barry Watson also came from television as one of the leads in the CW Network dramady “7th Heaven.” Marisa Coughlin was the least known of the bunch, but her recurring turn on Fox’s “The Guilt” was enough to get her name (and face) on the poster.
Williamson assembled an even more impressive list of stars to play teachers and school administrators, with talented where-are-they-nows like Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap), Molly Ringwald (The Breakfast Club), Vivica A. Fox (Idle Hands), and Jeffrey Tambor (The Death of Stalin) all popping in for a few scenes (not to mention the brilliant Helen Mirren in the title role). Compared to some of the more high-profile teen horror movies of the time, Teaching Mrs. Tingle boasts a more lightweight cast, but when standing on its own merits, it’s an impressive ensemble.
Teaching Mrs. Tingle was shot by cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski (Powder, Galaxy Quest). Mrs. Tingle’s home is almost a gothic-style setting, and the photography reflects that – it’s dark and dismal, very much in the same vein as the rest of the teen horror nineties. Zielinski cleverly uses camera angles to illustrate which character has the upper hand in each scene, and the angles change as often as the tables are turned. Nothing too fancy, but Zielinksi’s photography is subtly efficient.
Composed by John Frizzell (Ghost Ship, Leatherface), the score for Teaching Mrs. Tingle is suspenseful and exciting, full of melodramatic flourishes and creepy melodies. But, because it’s a hip teen horror flick, the economic and effective cinematic score is only half of the picture. The soundtrack is rounded out by a tasteful collection of pop songs. It doesn’t have as many notable artists as some of its contemporaries, but Teaching Mrs. Tingle does feature songs from superstars of the time like Eve 6, Duncan Sheik, and Julie London. It’s the kind of stuff that sells just as many soundtrack albums as tickets to the movie.
Teaching Mrs. Tingle feels like the viewer is seeing one of those R.L. Stine Fear Street novels come to life. As for Kevin Williamson, he kept going with his adolescent horror fascination, creating “The Vampire Diaries” for The CW as well as lending his name to “Scream: The TV Series” for MTV. But for as much writing and showrunning as he’s done, Teaching Mrs. Tingle remains Williams’ only directorial credit.