Directed by: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Premise: A female high school student discovers that she has a set of teeth inside of her vagina, giving her the ability to castrate men who attempt nonconsensual sex.
What Works: Many cultures have a myth about the vagina dentata. It’s been written about by psychoanalysts and understood as a metaphor for men’s fears about women’s sexuality but it has rarely been used as literally and as thoughtfully as in the 2007 feature film Teeth. The filmmakers have adopted a what-if scenario and followed it to its conclusion and in the process they’ve created a satirical horror comedy. One of the outstanding qualities of this film is the way that its makers have taken an idea that could be very silly and made it credible within the context of the movie. The setting of Teeth sometimes plays as a live action version of animated television shows like The Simpsons and South Park and several scenes satirize the absurd ways in which society deals with sexuality or tries to control it. But while the film has a sardonic approach, it is anchored in a vicious reality in which violence against women is pervasive and female sexuality is demonized. Teeth is anchored by the lead performance by Jess Weixler as Dawn, a young woman who discovers she has an unusual gift. Between the beginning and ending of this film, Dawn goes through a severe character arc and Weixler’s performance sells the reality of the film’s premise and the human impact of her sexual awakening. The filmmakers do something quite clever with her character, opening the movie with Dawn wearing a promise ring and lecturing to her fellow teenagers on the virtues of abstinence on behalf of a religious organization. The moviemakers are clearly critical of the abstinence movement but the film isn’t simply about freeing her from a prison of self-denial. Outside of her social network of purity is a world of men who have horrific regard for women, namely Dawn’s stepbrother played by John Hensley. The story of Teeth is ultimately a feminist narrative about a young woman who has to navigate a world that regards her as either a plaything or an inhuman sacred object. In that respect, the film self-reflexively comments not only on the ways in which women are treated by the culture but also the ways that many of our traditional stories have demonized female sexuality and women in general.
What Doesn’t: The tone of Teeth is all over the place. The first third of the movie is generally quite sweet as two sheltered teenagers experience a romantic and sexual awakening together. Things turn ugly from there and the film zigzags between moments of bloody horror and awkward comedy, sometimes within the same scene. In many respects the jagged shifts in tone work for the unusual subject matter of the movie but the filmmakers don’t quite marry the humor and horror together as well as films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and The Return of the Living Dead. The premise of Teeth is a great one and the filmmakers have done something thoughtful with it but the movie also gives the impression that its potential was never fully realized. That’s demonstrated in Dawn’s interactions with men. With the exception of her father, every single male in the movie is trying to use and abuse her. That’s part of the satirical element of Teeth. Satirical characters aren’t usually full-fledged people but are usually one-dimensional caricatures that represent an idea. The shortcoming of Teeth is that all of the men are of a very narrow stock and so the movie is mostly revisiting the same idea over and over again. Because Teeth is ultimately about this woman learning to take responsibility for her own body, the men’s consistently lecherous behavior is a fixed point around which her character arcs and so their narrow representation is not detrimental to the movie.
DVD extras: None.
Bottom Line: Teeth is a strange movie but its strangeness is to the film’s benefit. The picture uses an unusual premise to say something provocative about the relationships between men and women and the ways in which we’ve imagined female sexuality.
Episode: #539 (April 26, 2015)