You Can Look, But You Better Not Touch
Teeth / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | January 28, 2008 | Comments ()
There’s a certain pornographic air about Teeth, the debut feature from writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein, and it’s only partly due to the film’s graphic sexual nature. No, the real suspense comes in the waiting, in sitting there during the exposition and plot twists and just wondering when the film’s central theme — the vagina dentata — will rear its fanged head. As films go, Lichtenstein’s is all over the map, veering from arch drama to black comedy to quasi-cautionary tale to Cold War monster movie, but the feeling of anticipatory dread that runs below the surface is never less than perfect. And yet it’s also hard to come out and call the film good, since Teeth is clearly more concerned at being great at its premise and less so in its execution. It could be the best B-movie ever made, but it’s also tough to appreciate even ironically because it won’t stop winking at itself and the audience. The movie’s strongest sequences come in its second half, when Lichtenstein somewhat manages to find a balance between the dark comedy and horror film he wants to make. Self-awareness can be a dangerous game, and Teeth is at its best when it takes refuge in its natural intelligence and doesn’t try to become overly clever.
Dawn (Jess Weixler) is a wide-eyed young Christian girl, the kind who gives motivational speeches to assemblies of younger kids about the dangers of intercourse before marriage. She’s speaking at one of these meetings when she lays eyes on Tobey (Hale Appleman), at which point Robert Miller’s score swells a little with the kind of string cue nobody uses except to be really, really self-reflexively melodramatic about these things. Dawn likes Tobey a lot, but she’s also terrified of the battle she feels within her being waged between her physical need for sex and her emotional and spiritual desire to remain pure. But Dawn’s purity is further divided: She’s motivated not only by a religious commitment, but also weird visions of biting and pain — appearing as a black-and-white 1950s-era monster pic about a giant ant that her parents were watching the other day — whenever she begins to explore her own body. The trouble brewing in Dawn is pretty heavily mirrored by her town’s skyline, with twin smokestacks spewing progressively darker emissions into the distance behind her house; Teeth is pretty much the least subtle movie, comedy or no, you will ever see.
Dawn is troubled by her developing sexuality because she’s the bearer of a vagina dentata, though she doesn’t know the first thing about regular genitalia, much less mythologically mutated ones. She’s blocked out the memory of being a very young girl and playing in the kiddie pool with her stepbrother, who cut his finger while getting to know his baby stepsister. So it’s understandable that the teenage Dawn would be confused about the bizarre changes in her body, and it’s here that Lichtenstein blends the somewhat campy satire he’s been making with straight-ahead horror and suspense. (For those who don’t want to know the specifics of just what exactly happens and to whom, feel free to skip to the next paragraph.) Dawn and Tobey, no longer willing or able to defy their hormonal impulses, meet up at the lake one day for some secluded swimming, which leads to making out, which further leads to the beginnings of actual sex. Dawn, suddenly fearful of breaking her abstinence pledge and confronting the worrisome feelings growing within her, asks Tobey to stop, but he forces her back down on the ground and refuses to listen. He overpowers her and begins to rape her, at which point Dawn’s defense mechanism kicks in, clamping down on Tobey’s penis and roughly shearing it from his body. Lichtenstein doesn’t shy away from the wound, either, presenting a full view of the mangled and bloodied stump between Tobey’s legs as he and Dawn scream together. It’s a terrifying scene, and the first release of the tension Lichtenstein had been building from the start.
But this is also where Lichtenstein starts to get into trouble. It’s not that mixing genres is inherently bad, it’s that Lichtenstein seems to be mashing them up simply because he doesn’t know quite what else to do. Dawn’s first “attack” scene is a horror show mined for dark comedy, and the next image is of a dazed and confused Dawn wearing her “Warning: Sex Changes Everything” T-shirt. Had Lichtenstein played the visual gag down, or at least given it more than 15 seconds to come up, it would have come across as the kind of satirical irony he seems to take it for, and not the head-slapping moment of cuteness that it actually is. Lichtenstein’s haphazard shifts from one genre to the next, instead of making the film feel unclassifiable, actually wind up harming the central narrative and robbing it of some of its weight. If the film doesn’t take itself at least somewhat seriously, why should anyone else?
That said, when Teeth works, it really works, churning out the kind of queasy suspense all but guaranteed to make male viewers cross their legs in fear. Dawn’s terror at what she did leads her to an ob/gyn and the arms of another young boy at her school, but each time it’s clear that things will not turn out well at all for Dawn, who is the victim of cruelties almost jaw-dropping in their casualness, and the men, who wind up paying a price for taking advantage of Dawn. But after a series of increasingly graphic mutilations, it becomes clear that Lichtenstein’s fixation remains rooted in seeing the pain of the male characters and not the very thing that’s causing that pain. Teeth is a deeply flawed empowerment tale because it gives Dawn this ability to get even with the men who are apparently taking numbers just to get with her, but it also winds up playing into the unfortunate myth’s origins and turning Dawn into one more woman to fear. Then again, the men in Lichtenstein’s world aren’t just sex-obsessed, but so far gone that rape and roofies are acceptable alternatives to coercing a girl into bed; even when Dawn gets the hang of controlling her labial incisors, there’s no man around who isn’t worth castrating.
The film’s most defining scene involves a man taking advantage of Dawn, only to eventually feel the wrath of her barbed vagina in a scene that’s almost flawlessly milked for dramatic tension and looming horror. Of course, then the guy winds up howling, “It’s true! The vagina dentata!” in the aftermath of his encounter with Dawn, sending the action spiraling into the campy madness that might have appeared in one of those meta comic panels by Roy Lichtenstein, mid-century pop artist and Mitchell’s father. That’s Teeth at its heart: Well-drawn, but emotionally removed.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.