It’s been over twenty years since Katie Holmes, Barry Watson, and Helen Mirren appeared in the dark teen comedy Teaching Mrs. Tingle, but director Maureen Bharoocha thought it was time for the film to get an update. Following a very similar storyline to Tingle, THE PRANK casts Rita Moreno as the cruel Mrs. Wheeler who does not care if her extreme levels of discipline absolutely ruin the lives of her students. For four decades, the physics teacher tormented everyone in her class, and now her most recent victim, Ben Palmer will lose a very needed scholarship if he cannot convince Mrs. Wheeler to give him a passing grade. The film tries to combine horror and comedy but hits some issues with finding a consistent course to follow. Demonstrating how quickly social media can ruin a life, THE PRANK brings a fantastic cast to a mediocre story.
Even before Ben (Connor Kalopsis) speaks, we know he is an overachiever and excels in multiple areas of school and i is – essentially – a good boy. In contrast, his best friend Tanner (Ramona Young) lives in self-created squalor by surrounding herself with chaos and mess. The pair could not exist in more different worlds, but their opposite awkwardness somehow melds well with one another. Tanner’s lackadaisical approach to her day-to-day life and future does not disrupt Ben’s ability to push himself too hard. Ben dreams of attending the same college as his late father and while he has the drive and intelligence to accomplish this goal, one woman stands in his way: the evil physics instructor Mrs. Wheeler. Played by Rita Moreno, the small stature of the teacher does not take away from her overpowering presence and sinister demeanor. She demands respect from everyone and does so through intimidation and fear. Clad in black leather gloves, Moreno plays with the lives of her AP students in a sadistic and power-hungry manner.
Enraged (in his own docile way) Ben reaches out to Tanner for help on scheming up the perfect prank to make Wheeler suffer. Ben dreams small (ex: name-calling), but Tanner concocts an elaborate conspiracy theory and at the center of it she poses Mrs. Wheeler and a missing student. And thanks to the internet rumor mill and Tanner’s genius computer skills, soon the entire faculty and student body believe Mrs. Wheeler actually murdered the vanished Wayne Lambert #WheresWayne? Playing with how easy a person can use and abuse social media, Bharoocha takes a cheeky approach to high school life and the ignorance of adults. The first portion of the film establishes the talents of Kalopsis and Young and attempts to create a satirical story, but the writing struggles to follow this tone throughout the film.
The schoolyard gossip enjoys the scandal for almost a whole day before a fresher story becomes the focus of the short attention span of the students. However, Boomers fall for everything, so the news story spreads and now the joke cannot be killed. From the initial release of the prank to the rising action of the film, expect to find yourself waiting for THE PRANK to reach an interesting point. While the story waits to reach the climax, some unnecessary subplot sneaks in to further develop the friendship between Ben and Tanner. And granted, the young performers behave naturally with one another and deliver a believable platonic friendship, however, the film sometimes leans more towards a buddy high school movie and misses out on the more thrilling aspects of the story.
The best part of the movie comes from the amazing performance from the EGOT winning actress, Moreno. She commands every scene, and her character clearly brings fear to everyone she encountered for decades. Plus, at 90 years old, Rita Moreno’s presence in the film brings in some really interesting aspects of elder horror. Moreno’s death stare and gruff delivery create an intense and frightening villain, but how quickly all of her power gets taken away. The spectacle of handcuffing an elderly woman and escorting her out of the school by two towering police officers robs Wheeler of her larger-than-life presence and she now appears as a frail old woman. As the community becomes involved in the allegations, no one seems to side with the accused teacher because apparently everyone from the reporters covering the case to the police investigating the disappearance has experienced the wrath of Wheeler in their teen years.
Obviously, THE PRANK covers more comedy than horror, and the juggling of different genres does hurt the overall tone and pacing of the story. However, the young cast really helps carry this mediocre satire and loveable appearances from Keith David and Kate Flannery also add to the already enjoyable cast. And of course, Rita Moreno really sticks her claws into everyone (cast and audience alike) and makes physics class the most terrifying it has ever been.
THE PRANK had its World Premiere on March 13, 2022, at SXSW.