23 years ago, Kevin Williamson wrote and directed Teaching Mrs. Tingle, a film that saw a good student (Katie Holmes) hold a vindictive teacher (Helen Mirren) hostage in her own home after she is caught cheating. It was a dark comedy, but due to its proximity to the Columbine High School massacre it was a watered-down version of what could have been a wickedly fun time. Because of this, the film was a critical and commercial failure. History may be doomed to repeat itself as Maureen Bharoocha‘s The Prank, a film with a similar premise to Teaching Mrs. Tingle, suffers from many of the same issues as Williamson’s film. It’s not a total misfire, but aside from a devilishly fun performance from Rita Moreno, The Prank is a 95-minute sample of missed opportunities and broad, satirical comedy that lacks bite.

Overachieving Ben (Connor Kalopsis) and his slacker friend Tanner (Ramona Young, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow) run into some trouble when their cruel physics teacher Mrs. Wheeler (Moreno) learns that someone is a cheater and decides to fail their entire class unless the cheater confesses. When no one does, Tanner and Ben hatch a plan to ruin Wheeler’s life and frame her for the murder of a student who has recently gone missing. This causes a media frenzy, sending Tanner and Ben on an investigation for the potentially literal skeletons in Mrs. Wheeler’s closet.

Working from a script by Rebecca Flinn-White and Zak White, Bharoocha keeps the film light and bubbly, her eye for bright colors filling many of the film’s frames. The Prank is being described as a horror-comedy, which is slightly misleading. While there are a few horror movie elements thrown into the final real, The Prank is a comedy first and foremost. That’s not an issue in and of itself, but most of the jokes just don’t land, and that is a problem. Outside of some memorable one-liners from Moreno and, in the film’s most successful use of satire, some scathing critiques of objectivity in the media (“I’m not going to make accusations, but I can say that she’s an evil ghoul who murders children and haunts dreams,” announces one radio DJ), there’s not anything of substance here. 

As Mrs. Wheeler, Moreno steals the show. The 90-year-old EGOT-winner is clearly having a blast playing against-type as the cantankerous (and possibly murderous) teacher. It’s a rare role for Moreno, and one wishes that the film had gone even further into the depths of Wheeler’s demented mind to allow the actress to really cut loose. It’s a delight to watch, but it’s not enough to save the film. Ben and Tanner occupy most of The Prank‘s screen time, and while they prove to be compelling co-leads during the first act, the script is content doling out the same routine for the two in each consecutive scene (Ben is uptight and scared about whatever Tanner is planning, but Tanner helps him loosen up and agree to comply, leading to bad consequences for the both of them. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.). Frankly, it gets boring after a while, and that’s not something you want to say about any film, much less a comedy.

Pacing is an issue as well, with the film caring more about the “is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-murderer?” aspect of the plot, holding on to the big reveal about what’s really going on until long after the audience’s patience has expired. It’s a shame because there is a devilishly promising horror-comedy buried in the third act that shows what The Prank could have been, but alas, this current iteration isn’t it. Even when it does get dark, the film is still playing in a PG-13 playground*, and while a film’s rating is never a measure of quality, it does limit the extent of the humor the film can employ. This, unfortunately, leaves The Prank content being a toothless satire that plays things far too safe.

The Prank is an amusing watch, but one can’t help but wish the film refrained from playing things so safely, especially in a film revolving around a teacher who may or may not be murdering her students. This is dark stuff, but the Whites’ script opts for broad, light-hearted comedy instead of a biting satire. It’s an odd choice, but at least allows the film to operate as a harmless form of gateway horror for younger viewers. As for anyone else, they’ve seen this done before and done better. Still, Moreno is having a ball here, so much so that it almost makes The Prank worth recommending. Almost.

The Prank had its world premiere at SXSW and is currently seeking distribution.

*The Prank has not yet been rated by the MPAA and may very well earn an R-rating for 2-3 f-bombs, but this is still preteen-friendly fare.

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