Let's get some things out of the way first.
Yes, Teeth is that movie about the teenage girl who discovers her netherregion has a full set of choppers. It's called a "vagina dentata" and has been a part of mythology for centuries, having also worked its way symbolically into literature and surrealist art. It is essentially a product of men being afraid of woman and coming up with ways to make them even scarier.
No, you don't actually get to see the girl's ivories, though they do get tickled. You will, however, see more severed penises in one place than you've likely seen before. Blood spewing from places where those penises used to be, too. It's gruesome and strangely funny, and frankly, it's about time there was a redress in the gender imbalance of mutilated genitalia in motion pictures.
Yes, I am being serious, and so are the filmmakers, in so much as a satirical horror movie about a flesh-hungry vagina can be. This isn't just some cheap exploitation ploy, writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein is not only using the age-old horror device of puberty causing the onset of something terrifying, our fear of our changing bodies manifesting in some deadly outward manner, but he's also sticking a gentle elbow in the ribs of the far-right abstinence movement, with maybe even a wink to the Inconvenient Truth crowd judging by those ever-present smokestacks looming over the heroine's house.
No, it doesn't entirely work. It might have actually been better had Lichtenstein been more interested in the gory good times of pure exploitation. Either that, or been a little more forceful with that elbow, breaking a few ribs while he poked fun. Instead, Teeth is oddly mild, not really taking on its targets with any great gusto, content to just limply lay there. (If you'll pardon the expression. In fact, give this review one giant blanket "if you'll pardon the expression." I'm sure it will happen again.)
Teeth stars Jess Weixler as Dawn, the leading member of the no-sex-until-marriage group in her community. Jess is a good girl who cares for her sick mother and endures the loud rock music and verbal diarrhea of her step-brother Brad (Nip/Tuck's John Hensley). Her resolve is about to be tempted, though, by the doe-eyed boy (Hale Appleman) she's met at one of her youth rallies. He's so dreamy, he even has one of those dreamy teen-dream names: Tobey. Tobey is only a virgin "in His eyes," which means he slipped on a lusty puddle in the road and has had to ask God's forgiveness. Unfortunately, that forgiveness didn't come with self-control, and when Tobey tries to force himself onto Dawn, he awakens something in her, and to put it mildly, the hot dog slips out of the bun. I know there is a ten-second rule about such things, but Tobey is not fast enough to grab it, and now it's gone for good.
Dawn is, of course, feeling a little guilty about mutilating and killing her first boyfriend, and she's also feeling terribly impure. She seeks help, but only discovers that now that she has crossed that line into being a sexualized female, a world full of skeevy, predatory men awaits her. Everyone she goes to in order to seek aid has a different agenda, and they discover that their appetites and Dawn's aren't exactly the same.
Lichtenstein has a lot of things he wants to get off of his chest in this movie, and horror has always been a genre where enterprising storytellers could use the concept of things going bump in the night to frame larger social issues. With Teeth, Lichtenstein has set out to criticize modern society for treating sex as something icky and scary, creating a culture of fear where the consequences end up being greater due to teenagers reaching adulthood without understanding their bodies. There are pieces of that in the movie, but I felt like Lichtenstein stopped short of carrying his intentions all the way to completion. While he does subvert the usual mythology of the vagina dentate, where a hero comes in and dominates the female and neutralizes her power, it didn't seem to me that the director really gave his heroine a chance to take a stand. If anything, with all of the gore being of the kind that is likely to make most men cringe, he ends up reinforcing the male anxiety he is supposed to be ridiculing.
Take, for example, Brad, the first victim of Dawn's hungry little friend. Teeth opens promisingly with a scene where, as young children, the two play a game of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." Brad gets the tip of his finger nibbled off, an event that, though hazy in his memory, sets the course for his later life. The angry young man who trains an attack dog he named "Mother" and forces girls to let him in the back door rather than chance getting bit again is the way he is as a result of his first encounter with a vagina. While only the most disturbed members of the audience will actually like Brad, Lichtenstein does nothing to suggest he is irrational. The revenge Dawn gets is tangential to the overall meaning. It's female empowerment without any context.
Excluding the political elements, Teeth is still merely so-so. The filmmaking is often poorly executed. The editing is plodding and blunt, and the musical score is regularly misused to add false tension to slow-moving scenes. There are a couple of laughs, including some large and uncomfortable guffaws, but I'd say those scenes comprise only about ten minutes out of an 88-minute movie. On the same front, the horror isn't really all that horrifying. It can be creepy and squirm-inducing, but Teeth seems to be afraid to make a commitment to either side of the genre. For a rather daring concept, I found the overall filmmaking to be very timid.
I don't know. We'll see if this one takes off. The studios do love a horror franchise, after all. Personally, I'm rooting to see the male flipside, where some unsuspecting horndog's johnson turns into a razor-toothed piranha, a cross between the chest-burster in Aliens and Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. Because, really, it's the guys who have a hard time getting a handle on their desires, and I have heard tell that our penises do have minds of their own.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.