By B.A. Campbell
Teeth (2007). Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein. Cast: Jess Weixler, John Hensley.
If you’ve seen any advertisements for writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein’s 2007 film, Teeth, you think you know what to expect. Following the unfortunate exploits of virtuous teen Dawn (Jess Weixler), the film presents the most excessively literal interpretation of vagina dentata yet seen in American cinema.
Now, I like me some vagina dentata as much as the next guy. The concept, which literally means “toothed [you can figure the rest out]”, has been a staple in horror movies for about as long as horror movies have existed. It’s appeared symbolically in many forms: from the Alien‘s dripping maw to Jaws‘ ragged grin, there are few things men fear more than imminent toothy danger to their nethers. But you don’t make it literal.
Teeth isn’t just about monsters with suspiciously shaped mandibles. Before the end of the first act, Dawn will discover that she actually has fangs in her…well…. The film tells us they resemble those of sharks and eels, but, outside of several lingering shots of the nuclear power plant by Dawn’s house, doesn’t waste much time explaining how they got there. Not when there are certain appendages to be severed.
And you certainly don’t name the thing.
Teeth does its fair share of naming. The second victim of Dawn’s “thorny rose”, to adopt the advertising slogan’s terminology, responds to his unusual circumstances by shrieking, “It’s true! Vagina Dentata! Vagina Dentata!” While I doubt that’s where my mind would have immediately gone, it’s clear from this point on that Teeth isn’t going to beat around the bush.
It was only during this scene that I realized I was watching a comedy.
It’s odd, because the trailers and promotional materials heavily skew the movie as straight-up horror. They mention primal phobia, nightmares, cautionary tales. They suggest that it will be so frightening, you’ll only see it if somebody triple-dog-dares ya. Because they can never entirely escape the ridiculous and obvious premise, these ads just make Teeth look like another one of Hollywood’s Great Ideas. Frankly, it looks like it would bite.
Re-viewing the official trailer after watching the film, I was reminded of those re-cut trailers that make Mary Poppins look like an ax murderer. The footage has been judiciously edited so that everything that makes the included scenes hilarious – and they are hilarious – is replaced by a rapid cut or a fade to black.
Despite the misleading advertising, it’s clear by the film’s midway point that Lichtenstein is in on the joke. The effect is subtle, at first: from the opening half-hour, it looks as though we might be in for a slightly miscast misstep. Take, for example, the emphasis with which Dawn’s initial purity is hammered home: a campaigner for the save-it-’til-you’re-married Promise Ring, the steamiest experience she’s had is clasping hands with the hunky-wholesome Tobey (Hale Appleman) whilst chanting “Purity, Purity.” Along with two other friends, she passes up a PG-13-rated flick because it might feature “heavy making-out”. I had to suspend my disbelief far more to accept these teens’ existence in contemporary America than I did for any of Dawn’s…adaptations.
This is all, of course, before the trap springs. Once we reach that particular point-of-no-return, all of the ridiculousness that preceded it begins to fall into place. No longer are the performers miscast: Weixler, in particular, with her charming, open, perfectly expressive face, seems initially an odd choice for a horror vehicle. Then you get to one of the scenes in which somebody gets “bitten”: both Dawn and her victim take turns shrieking while copping the kinds of faces you’d normally see in teen comedies. You know; like when, for instance, the main character walks in on his parents in media res.
What’s most admirable about the film is how unbudgingly it keeps its tongue in its cheek. If I didn’t know that Lichtenstein had penned it himself, I would have guessed that it was written as a serious, if misguided, horror film, then played for laughs when the director got hold of it. It shows remarkable restraint, steering mostly clear of the slapstick elements of the Evil Dead films, for example (not that there’s anything wrong with those), in favour of a more satirical approach.
Which isn’t to say that Teeth won’t disturb, or even disgust, you. A fair warning: There are a few graphic depictions of the male generative organ, though never while it’s still attached. For the particularly squeamish, or prudent, mention should also be made of a fairly detailed textbook illustration of the female organs. But I have a feeling that anybody who would have objected to such things would never have made it past my first mention of vagina dentata.
There are also some darker themes at play, though few are tied directly to Dawn’s feminine troubles. Most of the darkest stuff occurs under Dawn’s roof: her mother (Vivienne Benesche) is suffering from a much-more-realistic consequence of settling down near a nuclear power plant, a sub-plot that could have lent the film some weight if it hadn’t been pushed so far to the background. There’s also her good-for-nothing step-brother (John Hensley), who harbours secret feelings for Dawn. In fact, it’s implied that he’s saving himself for her in his own special way. Then there is the rampant lecherousness of seemingly every male in Dawn’s neighbourhood, which contrasts well with their hypocritical expectations of modesty in the fairer sex. Seriously, none of the boys or men Dawn deals with seem capable of keeping it in their pants, where it’s safe. Well, so much their loss.
If I were to point to a weakness in the film, it would be that the humor is allowed to overshadow the heavier themes, most notably, sexual violence and gender inequality. I know Teeth wasn’t supposed to be about “issues”, but in the end, it does skirt some important issues and seems afraid to take a stand on them. Its satire feels underutilized. Maybe if the men’s libidinousness had been toned down slightly, or if the protagonist hadn’t had teeth in her…y’know.
Still, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable film, more surprising because the advertising was so shamefully misleading. If you passed this up thinking it looked like another bad horror film, it might be time to give it a try. If you’re looking for something to scare your pants off, it’s still pretty bad…but as a comedy, it cuts with clean, surgical precision.
Teeth is available from Amazon.com.