“And I will put enmity between you and the woman…(Genesis 3:15)”
Teeth is not merely disappointing; it is appalling. It is not the gore. It is not the extremity of its premise. It is its betrayal! I do not use that word lightly. It betrays both the audience and its own heroine. The film takes on a very sensitive subject, and promises to carry the weight of its ample subtext, but then it proves to be cheap and flippant. It shows us dark and vile aspects of humanity, but mocks the possibility of redemption.
Teeth opens on an idyllic scene of green trees lined up beneath a sunlit sky, but as the first shot slowly pans over, it reveals a nuclear power plant looming in the background, spewing out toxic waste. In this very first shot, the vocabulary of the film is reminiscent of David Lynch’s trademark worm in the apple of suburbia motif. We focus in on a front yard, with mom and dad in lawn chairs and little brother and sister in a small plastic wading pool, innocently showing each other their privates. The boy, Brad, reaches down to touch his step-sister, Dawn, and has the tip of his finger bitten. And so begins this outlandish horror-comedy about the myth of vagina dentate—the toothed vagina!
Early on, the film makes its satirical ambitions clear with some ironic writing, and a palette of pastel pinks and blues. Dawn grows up to be a young woman of high ideals. She is part of a group that goes around lecturing school kids about the dangers of premarital sex. The film expects its audience to find this culture of sexual repression ridiculous. A male teacher tries to teach a sex-ed course. The textbook is open to a page with an illustration of a penis. “That’s it then for the penis. Let’s move on to the… um… the next page.” He can’t bring himself to say the word vagina. “The female privates,” is the best he can do. Not only that, but on the next page of the textbook there is a big gold sticker where a vagina should be. Dawn, conditioned by her society, explains this censorship: “Girls have a natural modesty. It’s built into our nature.” Despite the film’s mocking undertone, Dawn (Jess Weixler) is so earnest, that we can’t help but like her.
Then, one dark and stormy night, with visions of marriage in her head, she touches herself. Her fantasy is filled with the clichéd artifacts of matrimony—roses, champagne, and choral music. The boy in this fantasy is Tobey, a fellow proponent of abstinence. Later, she invites this Tobey out swimming in the lush lagoon just out of town—clearly representing the Garden of Eden. After getting over their shyness at being half naked and vulnerable, they swim out to a cave and huddle together. Tobey’s lust gets the better of him, and he tries to force himself on her, despite her protests. And here the gore begins! As we’ve been expecting, the teeth in her vagina bite his penis off. We see this severed penis clearly, in all its repulsive glory. It is truly unpleasant, but the film expects us to grin and bear it… and I did.
After Tobey runs off, Dawn tries to process what has just happened. Alone, cold, wet and shivering, she realizes that she has hurt someone. She feels both violated and guilty. The scene perfectly captures that helpless, empty feeling of knowing you can’t reverse a hurt—neither your own nor anyone else’s. Dawn has a very lonely trip home, underscored by the hymn “Throw out the Lifeline.” The sequence is haunting. For this brief time, the film exhibits a profound sensitivity, and seems to understand that it has a responsibility to its subject and audience. But it will betray Dawn, and us, soon enough.
Dawn’s whole world has been disrupted. She destroys the artifacts of her idealism, tearing at the abstinence posters that cover her bedroom walls. She tries to have an intimate conversation with Brad, her over-sexed and cynical step-brother, but gives up when he tries to take this gesture of affection as an invitation to get into her pants. She tries to give a lecture on abstinence to a group of kids, but she can no longer connect to the material. The children she’s speaking to already know the drill, and as she tries to work her way through the mess of sexual awakening there in front of them, they throw scripture and verse at her. Dawn experiences a disconnect between the values she’s been taught and the truth of her own body and its impulses. At this point, the film still had me in its grasp, for it is treating its subject with a fair amount of intelligence and sensitivity, effectively capturing the torment of sexual confusion.
Dawn goes online to research her condition. She has a panic attack when, googling her symptoms, she learns about “vagina dentate.” Wisely, Dawn decides to finally get herself checked out by a gynecologist. It is an awkward scene with Dawn shy and embarrassed about her body. But because of the doctor’s soothing voice and compassionate air, Dawn begins to relax. He seems sensitive and respectful, how nice to finally be in the company of an understanding man! But it’s too good to be true. He secretly removes his glove before the exam, which suddenly becomes a fisting session. Of course, his fingers get bitten off. “It’s true,” he screams. “Vagina dentate! Vagina dentate!”
At this point, we notice a pattern in this girl’s life; she is constantly putting her trust in men who seem to have the best of intentions, only to be severely disappointed. But then we meet Ryan! Ryan isn’t a sexually repressed boy or a predatory authority figure! He’s a young man trying to find his way—confident, assertive and respectful! Could this be the one—the “hero” that will conquer her vagina and show it that it doesn’t always have to be so afraid? He seems to have the best of intentions, and we like him! We think he’s the best thing to happen to Dawn.
Tobey comforts her in her hour of need, giving her shelter and a shoulder to cry on. He crafts a romantic atmosphere with roses and champagne and Dawn remarks how the moment is always how she dreamed it would be. When, as he enters her, she tenses up in fear, he asks her if she wants him to stop. It is this acknowledgement of her that gives her the confidence to be sexual. She does not want him to stop, and lets him know. When she reminds him about the teeth, he assures her: “No, I’m conquering them. I’m the hero.”
Just when sex starts to become fun, the film reveals that we’ve, once again, been set up. Ryan gets a phone call, and Dawn is appalled that he answers his phone while still inside her. He makes crass remarks to some friend about his achievement, and admits to having a bet with his friend that he could have her. So, even Ryan cannot be trusted, and off comes his manhood. We are treated to yet another graphic shot of a penis spurting blood. It is not the gore that is so offensive—that’s just part of the territory; it is the humour that bothers me. Walking away from the scene she quips, “some hero” as he calls out desperately for his mom. And later, at the hospital, as they are reattaching his penis, the surgeon remarks: “Hardly seems worth it.” The film expects me to find this funny, but I don’t, not one bit. I don’t find it funny because, while the gore is somewhat cartoonish, the fear, panic and pain we see is real!
After the death of her mother, caused by her step-brother Brad’s negligence, Dawn decides to use her vagina as a weapon. This is the first time she has chosen to hurt someone. So she castrates Brad, and hitchhikes out of town. I held my breath at this point, waiting to see just what the film would leave me with. What final note would it play? The old man who picks her up pulls up to an abandoned gas station. She is about to leave, when she discovers that he has locked the doors. There are no words exchanged, his flicking tongue tells us all we need to know about his intentions. She is, of course, appalled. But then, slowly, a sardonic smile spreads across her face, and we know what she plans to do. Roll credits.
So, what exactly does this film leave us with? Let’s consider this woman’s plight; she has encountered nothing but predatory men, and it seems she will spend the rest of her life preemptively biting off penises for her own protection. Is this meant to be an empowering fable? Women, listen, all men are predators, and you must use your powers to destroy them before they destroy you. Men, here’s the deal, women have a weapon inside them, so you need to trick them into thinking you’re not a threat so that you can use them for your pleasure. What a horrific little story—cynical, mean-spirited and profoundly depressing. It sets itself up as a meditation on society’s fear of female sexuality and male oppression, but doesn’t offer any insights into either phenomenon, but uses them to set-up cheap thrills. This story is not about empowerment. It suggests an eternal conflict between the sexes, without hope for mutual understanding. The best we can do, the film tells us, is hurt someone before they hurt us. While there is a definite visceral thrill from seeing a bully emasculated, the catharsis only lasts a second or two. There isn’t enough substance to the story to carry me through my bad feelings about what’s happening. I don’t feel empowered, or challenged, or enlightened. A film that dares to brandish such a loaded conceit, damn well owes allegiance to the gravity of its ideas!
There are some great horror films that play off of lost innocence and sexual awakening. The thematic concerns of Teeth, and its cliched language, are reminiscent of a far better film—David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Once exposed to the dark underbelly of his small town life, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLaughlin) must battle evil forces—personified in the sadistic thug Frank (Dennis Hopper)—but to do so, he must acknowledge the shadow in himself. David Lynch presents a hyperbolic world of purity versus disease, innocence versus corruption, and a young man’s discovery that goodness and redemption are possible, but they must be earned! Blue Velvet, like all great horror, is an affirmation of life—showing us the darkness, but suggesting a way to the light. Characters must do battle to try to make life a little better. There is nothing worth fighting for in Teeth, and that renders the whole experience pointless.
Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Writer: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Stars: Jess Weixler, John Hensley, Josh Pais, Ashley Springer