One of my favourite things about being on holiday is being able to get through loads of books I want to read. Also, being in Wisconsin means cheap, used books (which might just be my second favourite thing about being on holiday).
Lois Duncan has been an author I’ve been meaning to read for ages now. Her books are the source material for films like I Know What You Did Last Summer and the made-for-TV movie Summer of Fear, which I wrote about last June. But something about the synopses of her books led me to believe that there was more going on with her stories than these movies made me believe.
So at Half-Price Books I managed to grab Killing Mr. Griffin for $2.95. And I devoured it.
And of course, when I learned that there was a made-for-TV adaption staring my childhood idol Amy Jo Johnson, I was completely on board.
Killing Mr. Griffin was released the same year as I Know What You Did Last Summer. The cynic in me assumed that Killing was released in the wake of the latter’s success. But I was proven wrong. Killing Mr. Griffin was actually released nearly six months earlier. Something about Duncan’s 70’s novels adapted well into the 90’s aesthetic, I guess.
What was surprising to me was how faithful this adaption was. Yes details were changed for added drama, and the setting was relocated from New Mexico to the more-accessible California, but it was the 90’s.
Speaking of changes, the film opens up at the Juniors Pyjama Dance. Because of course. Our star, Susan (Johnson) is one of the outsiders serving punch. She has two good friends, but clearly lives life on the outside looking in. As a joke (this seems really distasteful, but since it’s pre-Columbine it’s…ok?), several Senior boys break up the dance by running in wearing masks and threatening to shoot everyone.
The guns are, hilariously, paintball guns. Ladies and gents, the ringleader is mega-asshole Mark. Learn to dislike Mark. Mark in the worst.
Mark’s enemy in the hard-ass English teacher Mr Griffin. He won’t allow Mark into class when Mark doesn’t enter the classroom before the bell. The teacher actually makes his student beg and apologise before being allowed in.
Though the film tries to make you feel sorry for Mark, it’s pretty hard. For one, his parents are super nice and successful. In the 90’s, everyone was rich in teen movies. Apparently the idea of kids living in ranch-style houses was completely disgusting. But I think that does take away from Mark’s character, making him more of the tired “poor little rich boy” character that anything more complex.
But, you know, Mr Griff is a total jerk!
While Mark’s parents are out for a business trip, he throws a party. It’s then that he tells his friends his idea to kidnap Mr G. The other kids seem less than convinced about the idea knowing that their English teacher has absolutely no sense of humor.
Meanwhile, poor Susan is wandering around, constantly drooling over Mark’s friend Dave (Mario Lopez). When Dave forgets his book for class, Susan tries to help him, but they’re caught and Mr Griffin gives Dave a zero for that day’s work.
While watching the interaction, the cogs in Mark’s head begin to turn. He tells Dave to ask Susan out so that she can be a part of his plan to kidnap Mr Griffin. Dave Reluctantly agrees and invites the girl out for rock climbing.
Mark asks Susan to join them in the kidnapping, and the girl is everything but enthusiastic. But after a lesson in which Mr Griffin is particularly harsh on her, she agrees.
But it turns out that Mr Griffin deeply cares about his students. He’s purpose is to push them to their limits. His wife, a sixth grade teacher, is mostly concerned that his techniques come off as harsh even though he’s good intentions.
The day of the kidnapping arrives and the students take their places. Susan asks Mr Griffin to have a word with her about her performance in his class. He takes a chance and divulges that he thinks she has a lot of potential. They walk out together to his car when Mr Griffin is grabbed by the boys in ski masks. But before Mr Griffin is shoved into his car, he tells Susan to run – still concerned for his safety.
Mark, Dave and their friend Jeff, along with Mark and Jeff’s girlfriends go to a cabin up by a lake. They throw a blindfolded Mr Griffin onto the floor and taunt him with a voice changer. Mark also records the entire thing on his camcorder. They try to get him to agree to being nicer, but he refuses. But Mr Griffin does beg for them to give him his pills back. But none of the kids can find them.
The kids split, leaving Mark alone with him. He continues to taunt Mr Griffin when the voice changer dies. The teacher realises who is behind his kidnapping and becomes angry. Mark then spots his teacher’s pills, but pockets them instead.
He leaves Mr Griffin behind and the friends all agree to tie up their teacher and leave him to “sit and think” for a few hours.
Feeling guilty, Dave goes to visit Susan and tells her what happened. The two go out to the lake to get Mr Griffin but instead find his corpse. The pair panic and retrieve the rest of the guilty party. Ringleader Mark immediately says that they need to bury the body, then take the car to the airport.
The first part of the plan goes without a hitch. But the next day, Mrs Griffin reports her missing husband. Susan is called to the principal’s office where she’s questioned by the police. She says that she saw Mr Griffin get into a car with another woman. When Mrs Griffin shows up, the detective asks Susan if Mrs Griffin was the woman she saw, Susan lies and says it isn’t. But the girl is immediately called out as a liar by Mrs Griffin.
The lie further unravels when Mr Griffin’s body is unearthed by some builders. After the autopsy, it’s revealed that Mr Griffin died because he didn’t take his pills for his arrhythmia. Susan increasingly becomes suspicious about Mark’s part in their teacher’s death. She confronts him about it, and he agrees to meet her at his house to ‘strategise’.
Susan goes to Mark’s house and they begin to talk. But Mark is distracted by the arrival of his girlfriend. Susan hides in the kitchen, but hears a noise coming from Mark’s room. She goes upstairs and sees the footage from the kidnapping playing on Mark’s television. She sees the part where he pockets the pills, and finally realises that the Mr Griffin’s death is Mark’s fault.
She grabs the camcorder and runs, but Mark is quickly onto her. She jumps into Mr Griffin’s car to go to the police when Mark jumps out in front of her, demanding that she stop. After threatening her with a gun, he gets in with her and tells her to go to the cabin.
At the lake, Susan crashes the car. The other friends arrive shortly after, and she shows them the footage. Mark shots Dave. Dave threatens Mark. And finally, Mark admits his part in Mr Griffin’s death.
I do have to emphasis, while this was a pretty good adaption, this film is not nearly as good as the book. I found it hard to read the book at times because of how fond I felt for Mr Griffin. And Susan is a much more sympathetic character than she is written in the movie.
Mark is a fantastic villain. He’s a sociopath and the film unravels him well (despite the minor issues I have noted above). Unfortunately there’s a lot of throw away material in here. But Killing Mr Griffin is still an enjoyable adaption well worth watching – a cut above most made-for-TV movies.
And one last thing, the kids are obsessed with getting Mr Griffin to recite Shakespeare in Pig Latin. No idea why, but it’s pretty damn amusing.