HELEN MIRREN'S presence in "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" makes an already terrible movie even more painful.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Helen Mirren is more than just a class act. She's one of the greatest actors in the entire universe. Whether she's busting a case in the British television show "Prime Suspect" or simply busting loose in "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," she's always mesmerizing. Women love her. Men love her. And if someone wants to start a Helen Mirren Religious Cult, I'm applying for Deacon of Devotional Rites.
What a tragedy, then, to watch her talents abused and squandered in Kevin Williamson's uninspired black comedy. As the title character, Mirren's the History Teacher From Hell, an academic Nurse Ratched who lives to crush the aspirations of her students at Grandsboro High.
Her pet project is Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes), a great pupil who wants to become class valedictorian so she can get a college scholarship. But when Leigh Ann presents her history homework, an ingenious re-creation of a witch's diary during the Salem witch hunts, Mrs. Tingle is unimpressed.
Things get worse when -- through a clumsily conceived comedy of errors -- Mrs. Tingle discovers a copy of her final exam in Leigh Ann's backpack.
Class slacker Luke (Barry Watson) is the one responsible, but no amount of explanation can sway Mrs. Tingle from her intention to destroy Leigh Ann's future. And when Luke, Leigh Ann and her best friend Jo Lynne (Marisa Coughlan) visit Mrs. Tingle at home to explain everything, things turn ugly.
There's a scuffle at the doorway, followed by another klutzy series of errors, this time involving a misfired crossbow, a temporarily unconscious Mrs. Tingle and utter panic. When Mrs. Tingle comes around, she's trussed to the posters of her bed, and a prisoner in her own home.
But the perceptive Mrs. Tingle detects romantic rivalry between her female captors for Luke's heart and promptly exploits it to her advantage.
Speaking of exploitation, Williamson has clearly aimed for the audiences he earned with such hits as "Scream" and TV's "Dawson's Creek." But he offers no reward for their support. The movie is lazily written and hopelessly miscast. Holmes is a likable performer, but not strong enough to lead a movie. And her classmates are wet noodles, especially in Mirren's presence.
The most embarrassing moment in the movie, for my money, occurs when drama student Jo Lynne, bored with watching over Mrs. Tingle, does an impression of Linda Blair's head-turning, expletive-laced antics in "The Exorcist." But she tones down the profanities and curses used by Blair for no apparent reason except, I assume, to keep a PG-13 rating. So what's the point of even referring to that scene?
As the drama student she's pretending to be, performer Coughlan deserves the full brunt of Mrs. Tingle's contempt -- which probably wasn't Williamson's intention. Come to think of it, maybe an exorcism is exactly what "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" needed. But it would have to be an intense, fire-and-brimstone scene that ultimately delivered Mirren from the satanic spirit that forced her to appear in this movie in the first place.
TEACHING MRS. TINGLE (PG-13, 93 minutes) -- Contains violence, profanity and sexual situations. Area theaters.