As an educator, I’m often curious about movies that feature members of my chosen profession. Therefore, it would seem that the 1974 film The Teacher would pique that particular interest. However, the movie takes place during summer vacation rather than the school year, and no conventional teaching is conducted. Instead, the titular teacher, Diane (Angel Tomkins), is a randy near-divorcee who sets her sights on teenaged neighbor and van-enthusiast Sean (Jay North, TV’s Dennis the Menace).
The movie, written and directed by Hikmet Avedis, features two incongruous plots that really should have nothing to do with one another: a suspense thriller and a teen sex comedy. The latter plot involves creepy stalker Ralph (Anthony James, a tall, thin, pockmarked actor who made a career playing this same character over and over), spying on Diane while she sunbathes on her boat. Sean is hanging out with Ralph’s brother, Lou, checking out Ralph’s red coffin full of stalking equipment at his secret stalking post on top of a warehouse, when Ralph surprises the two boys and accidentally sends Lou plunging to his death. Ralph, already unhinged, goes off the deep end and accuses Sean of murder. He then proceeds to stalk Sean and threaten the teenager with a bayonet. Even though everyone seems to know that Ralph is a dangerous lunatic, no one feels any pressing need to do anything about him.
Meanwhile, Diane, whose husband has disappeared for months without a word, is looking to hook up with the young stud next door. Sean, however, is oddly not interested in his hot neighbor, acting strange whenever she makes an advance on him. He wants to spend his summer installing some paneling in the back of his boss Dodge van. When Diane offers Sean some spare paneling left in her garage, she has to reassure him, “I’m not going to rape you,” which seems to set him at ease. Even Sean’s mother seems to be encouraging the forbidden romance, pimping out her own son to Diane. During a particularly uncomfortable conversation, Mom confesses, “I find him attractive, even if he’s my own son.”
After about the third time Diane appears topless in his presence, Sean finally relents and gets down to some old-fashioned dry-humping with his teacher. (I speak from experience when I say that no one ever needs to see TV’s Dennis the Menace dry-humping his teacher.) Later, as their relationship gets even more serious, the two go out to dinner at a local restaurant, where the neighborhood gossips have a field day with the scandalous couple. Much of the movie then deals with Sean’s sexual education at the hands of Diane.
The two plots converge in the film’s climax. Ralph kidnaps Sean, ties him to a leash, and takes him back to the warehouse hideout. Diane follows in her awesome ‘Vette, but she arrives too late: Ralph has already choked Sean to death. He then attempts to rape Diane, but she fends him off by stabbing him to death with his own bayonet. The film ends with a freeze frame of Diane cradling Sean’s corpse. All this is just bizarrely inconsistent with the lighthearted sexual antics that run through the rest of the movie, and it leaves one wondering just what writer/director Avedis was thinking.
However, nothing in the film really gives the viewer any confidence in Avedis’s skill. His direction is amateurish; he can’t even shoot a basic conversation between two characters properly. The actors are not much help, either. Jay North is a bland sex object, and it’s difficult to see what Diane sees in him. And though she’s not a great actor, Angel Tomkins has a kind of goofy sexuality in her scenes with North that shows she, and her character, are having fun. This is especially noticeable in a scene where she takes Sean for a little tryst on her boat: Sean has trouble getting her bikini top off, and she playfully teases him about it. Later, however, when she’s attacked by Ralph, she’s too stony faced for the scene and the limits of her range are evident. In a few brief moments, though, Tomkins shows us a glimpse of a much better movie that could have been.
One of the more formative experiences in my development as a film buff (as well as the inspiration for this regular column) was the time I spent in college reading and rereading Danny Peary’s three Cult Movies volumes and the companion book, Cult Movie Stars (all sadly out of print). What I appreciated in particular about Peary’s assessments was when he would find a grain of quality in an otherwise abysmal performance or film. This is especially true of Cult Movie Stars, where Peary often finds ways to offer genuine praise to actors who were often relegated to near-anonymity in Z-grade movies (he even includes classic porn stars in this book).
Angel Tomkins doesn’t make it into that book, though she could easily qualify. She had a promising beginning to her career, earning a Golden Globe nomination as “Best Newcomer” in her first role as Elliot Gould’s mistress in I Love My Wife, and she followed that with a slew of B-movie and TV roles throughout the 70s. At the very least, her performance in The Teacher reminds me of the experience of reading Peary’s books for the first time and discovering a unique assessment of an actor or film that I would not have been aware of otherwise.