Teeth made a big splash at Sundance and generated a bit of buzz, pardon the expression. It got a lot of adoration for being a refreshing mix of genres, and a message of female empowerment. Maybe I’m a little jaded, but it felt like a standard horror movie to me, and I’ll tell you why. I watched the movie with the Firecracker and she felt the same, so it’s not just the man’s perspective lashing out here.
The story begins with Dawn and her older stepbrother Brad in a pool on a summer day; they’re playing “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” and a minute later Brad has a deep cut on his finger, which will scar him for life in more ways than one. When we see him later he’s tattooed and confesses that he’s lusted for Dawn ever since their childhood game.
Jump to adolescence and we find Dawn’s only hobby is teen abstinence. She’s speaking before a group of her peers, waxing poetic about the joys of saving that most special of gifts for the person you want to have children with. The film has that familiar, light mocking tone reserved for most depictions of faith in cinema; after praising abstinence they move on to excoriating the sin of masturbation, as if it were possible to keep teens from reveling in the joys of self-abuse. These groups do exist, and I’m glad the film pokes fun at them, but I wish once they’d play it completely straight and let the audience realize the silliness for themselves.
The school has a sex education class, but the textbook has a huge sticker over the figure of the vagina. The penis was allowed, which is odd, because in movies it’s usually the other way around. I don’t think uptight school districts judge the vag more harshly than the wang, though there’s plenty of societal discomfort around it. The movie doesn’t make any useful insights on it though.
Jesse Weixler does a fine job as Dawn, but she’s not written as a fully fleshed character. Her only friends are fellow Abstinent Teens, and it seems like all they talk about is sex and how to avoid it. For example they go to a movie, and end up seeing a G-rated cartoon because even the PG-13 one might have heavy petting. Ha, ha. Even sites like capalert.com are more lenient.
Everything changes once she meets Tobey at one of her meetings. They hit it off right away, and after a few days of awkward stares while their abstinence buddies make out, they sneak off to the lake in his Jeep. They know it’s a common make-out spot, and there’s a cave where kids have sex, but it begins with some innocent swimming; she has a rather modest one-piece suit on, but gets right percolated when she sees Tobey in his underoos. Being teens enslaved to their throbbing hormonal urges, they soon slink off to the cave, itself a symbol for the scary vagina, to fumble with their untested organs.
This is where the movie becomes a formulaic, and if it were a little more daring, it would have been funny. Tobey seemed like a nice enough guy so far, but when Dawn wants him to stop, he becomes your typical date rapist. He accidentally bonks Dawn on the head, and what the hell, he figures, you might as well boink her too now that she’s unconscious. This is where the title comes into play; Dawn has a self-defense mechanism lurking inside her, and it savages Little Tobey- cutting it off, in fact. Tobey scrambles away, leaving his severed organ in the cave, and Dawn is as scared as he is about what happened.
Since most of us knew the plot device of the vagina dentata when we saw the film, we’d been waiting for this to happen and the movie is nearly half over before the first wee-wee is wemoved. From here on, it is mostly a straightforward horror film very reminiscent of the It’s Alive! trilogy with its killer babies; it too make the womb a scary place from which unknown creatures could emerge. In case you were wondering, they never show her nether choppers, though a coroner describes a shed tooth found in a victim as resembling a cross between a shark and a lamprey‘s. If you’re curious, here’s a vagina dentata for you. If you’re stupid enough to click on a link named “vagina” at work, you deserve what you get.
Now, you could compare Dawn’s terrible self-realization to menarche, but the movie instead just imposes two cooling towers of a nuclear power plant behind her home, and gives her mother an unmentioned terminal disease to explain away what may have caused this. The camera lingers on the towers a lot, making me wonder if the producers demanded it be put in. It would be much more interesting to just never explain it. Dawn’s class makes fun of evolution in science class when a teacher explains how a rattlesnake may have evolved its tail, another hint at how and why this happened. It’s a good idea, but it’s clumsily executed.
From here Dawn goes to the creep gynecologist to get checked out, and the film relies on making every male except her Dad a rapist or scumbag of some sort. Which would be fine if it weren’t so contrived to raise the emasculation count. When the doc finds out it’s her first visit and she doesn’t know what to expect, he ends up fisting her and she takes his fingers off. And to top it off, he didn’t even warm up the speculum! Now compare this to a better film like Dead Ringers, with its delusional gynecologists building custom tools for “mutant women,” and it pales in comparison.
Dawn runs home and finds her mother collapsed, while her asshole brother is banging his girlfriend in the other room. “I love you… up your ass!” he tells her; his childhood game with Dawn has left him fearful of the mysterious vagina. Dawn gets her mom to the hospital, but too late; with no one left to turn to, the plot sends her to the house of another boy who was asked her out earlier. He too seems sweet at first, romancing her tenderly, but their hook-up is just a plot device to show that she can control the cutter in her cooter. She has some good healthy sex with him, but the next morning he answers the phone during a second session of morning sex and tells his buddy he won the bet, and he’s having sex with her right now!
Dawn then sees she can use her toothy twat for vengeance, and puts it to good use, in a much more graphic scene showing blood spurting from the stump. Then she heads home (right by the smoking nuclear power plants) to give her stepbrother his comeuppance. He gets the worst Bobbit-ization of the lot, as his Rottweiler gobbles it up like a dog treat when it hits the floor. That reminded me of the same scene in John Waters‘ film Desperate Living, and what a better movie he would have made with this material.
He’d know to make it funny, and still skewer society and our perceptions along the way. The problem with Teeth is that it can’t decide whether it’s a dark comedy, a slasher film, or an art film commenting on our Puritanical views of the punani. It was a refreshing change to see the guys as stereotyped plot points, which is unfortunately the most common role for women these days, but I expected more from the hype. It does not juggle the three genres well, and most of the time the film is held up by Jesse Weixler’s rise from sexually repressed teen to scream queen to avenger. It does pay off if you want to see a bunch of severed penises, but in that respect, how different is it from I Spit on Your Grave? In fact it’s sort of a mix between that and Thelma & Louise, but at least Dawn doesn’t have to drive over a cliff at the end.
Part of me wonders how much better this movie cold have been; the vagina dentata is a great primal concept from mythology, but it sprung from men’s fear of the unknown and castration anxiety. Making it into a bizarre coming of age story was a strange choice, since the film gets most interesting at the end when she comes to terms with her power.
It tries to be subdued and creepy like a psychological horror film, when it’s really just a slasher film with gender role tweaks; every death is justified and it doesn’t ask much of the audience. It’s not even as good as The Brave One, which was just a mildly intellectual Death Wish remake. Here Charles Bronson is a teenage girl, and she uses her pussy instead of a phallic gun. I wonder if the movie would have been better if it was written and directed by a woman. A woman with some balls. It does work as a somewhat funny slasher flick with a twist, but for a better horror movie, see May or The Woods, by Lucky McKee.
Avenger on the road