For the past several years, American horror has been stuck in a very unflattering rut. Don’t get me wrong — there are certainly several insanely talented individuals attempting to carve their own little tasty slice out of the genre, but most seem sadly content with rehashing ideas that have, for the most part, overstayed their welcome. Grab any dusty Lionsgate release from your favorite video store’s “Singular Sensations” shelf the next time you have some time to kill; chances are you’ll discover this unfortunate truth in the flesh, so to speak, though I strongly recommend that you avoid subjecting yourself to such unmerited cinematic torture. What’s even more depressing is that almost every genre-related flick that strives to do anything remotely different is cast aside and virtually buried at the bottom of this stagnant pile, forever lost beneath unwatched copies of Bloody Murder and Gag. Pardon me while I wipe away a few extremely bitter tears.
Mitchell Lichtenstein’s brilliant 2007 blood-soaked dark comedy Teeth is, for lack of a better hyperbole, the sharpest American horror picture I’ve seen in a very, very long time. Granted, the film is still a crotch-driven, sex-stuffed gore flick with lots of plot holes and gaping leaps in logic, but it also tackles the material from an entirely different angle. More importantly, perhaps, is that Lichtenstein is keenly aware that his demented tale of sexual awakening and female empowerment isn’t high art, nor does it strive to be. This sly, tongue-in-cheek approach ultimately saves the movie from completely alienating the male audience, and actually helps ease the uncomfortable nature of the on-screen terror.
Jess Weixler stars as Dawn, a bright, cheery teenage girl who has devoted her free time to spreading the message of abstinence to impressionable children via an organization called The Promise. Are her sexual inhibitions the result of a rigorous religious upbringing or an unfortunate childhood trauma? Not quite. Dawn’s complete aversion to intercourse stems from an odd vaginal condition she has kept tucked away for years, one that might prove to be a deal breaker should her would-be partner discover the secret for himself. Simply put, our perky blonde heroine has a set of deadly, razor-sharp teeth in her luscious lady salad, and they’re always down for a sizable serving of pork sausage. A bold afternoon tryst with a like-minded male companion sets off a disturbing chain of events, thrusting this confused little girl into that wild, unpredictable world known as womanhood. The results, as one might imagine, are quite surreal.
Teeth is one of the inkiest pitch black comedies to date, a fractured fairy tale that operates as an exploration of male and female sexuality as well as a straight-forward horror outing. Mitchell Lichtenstein’s script definitely has its roots in offensive B-grade trash, though his thoughtful characters, deadpan wit, and surprising restraint elevate the material from a shallow exploitation pic to quirky character study. The teeth and their most unusual location never totally dominate the narrative; instead, the film chooses to focus on Dawn’s gradual realization that, perhaps, sex and life and love isn’t as easy to define as she originally thought. In other words, its a fairly intelligent affair.
Performances are strong across the board, with rising star Weixler easily leading the pack. John Hensley (Shutter) also delivers the proverbial goods as Dawn’s angst-laden stepbrother Brad, a truly warped individual who once fell victim to her snappy crotch many years ago. And while everyone is worth mentioning, it’s Josh Pais who steals the show as creepy gynecologist Dr. Godfrey. If that scene doesn’t get you squirming in your seat, chances are nothing will. Were it not for the dedication of this talented collection of actors, Teeth would have instantly crashed and burned.
My only real complaint is the film’s tone, which often shifts radically at the drop of a hat. Sometimes Teeth is a comedy, sometimes it’s a gory horror flick that revels in its own ridiculous brutality — it never really knows what, exactly, it wants to be. Perhaps this was intentional. There are traces of Donnie Darko here, as well as May, In My Skin, and the icky, uncomfortable body horror of genre-defying filmmaker David Cronenberg. The picture’s uneven nature, as well as its slightly misandric undertones, will harm its chances of reaching a broader audience. In fact, I’m sure I’ll have a hard time selling this particular release to anyone who isn’t already aware of its existence. After all, vaginal horror isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially when its served with a few severed members and copious amounts of grue.
Speaking of vaginas, I should probably mention the toothy villain itself, as we never actually get to see the beast in all its unholy glory. However, Lichtenstein does a fantastic job of painting a vivid mental image, utilizing old horror movies, disembodied teeth, stomach-churning sound effects, and good old-fashioned suggestion in place of a full-on crotch shot. Disappointing, you ask? Not really. Contrary to popular belief, leaving certain elements to viewer interpretation is extremely effective, as the human mind can fill in the blanks to impossibly disturbing degrees. As Teeth will prove, one should never underestimate their own sick and twisted imagination. Some people will cry about it, I’m sure, but they’re probably watching the movie for the wrong reasons to begin with.
Teeth ranks up there with Cronenberg’s Crash as one of the most perverse, sexually bizarre motion pictures in modern cinematic history. It’s a comedy, a feminist fist bump, a slightly cheesy horror flick — in other words, it bucks convention and kidney punches your drowsy expectations. Even if you hate it with every inch of your throbbing genitalia, you’re probably going to remember it for quite some time. Mitchell Lichtenstein has done a fantastic job of giving us a film which attempts to do something a bit different without straying too far from what makes us love horror flicks in the first place. Is it perfect? Of course not. Will everyone appreciate it? Don’t be silly. Teeth has limited appeal, to be sure, but there are those out there who will embrace it with open arms and legs crossed.
Watching castration has never been so much fun.