On the surface, Teeth (2007) is a sometimes-silly dark comedy with a horrific premise that borders on grindhouse-style exploitation. But writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein’s first feature film, which premiered at Sundance, goes beyond adolescent humor and gross-out horror prosthetics to make points about women’s sexuality and American culture. The only problem is that the slow-burn story takes some time to gather steam and get around to making those points.
Aside from the opening scene, the first third of the film is a somewhat lame satire of adolescent abstinence movements. It shows the story’s protagonist, Dawn (Jess Weixler), as a naive young woman who’s afraid of her emerging sexual self. Her opposition to sex before marriage reeks of the psychodynamic defense mechanism of reaction formation. Dawn consciously preaches the opposite of her unconscious desire. And, yes, there’s plain old hypocrisy, represented by the “boy of her dreams,” Tobey (Hale Appleman). He feigns purity only to end up attempting to rape her. That’s when the film starts to bite (pun intended).
Yet it’s also a satire of male-oriented hedonism, represented at its worst by Dawn’s slimy step-brother Brad [John Hensley]). Dawn’s classmates mercilessly bully her because she asserts that she gets to choose when and with whom she has sex. Even though this assertion is based on a fundamentalist religious dogma that ignores the raging hormones of adolescence, it still opposes a “rape culture”-based world in which the sexual role options for women boil down to the classic choice between “Madonna” (not the pop star) or “whore.” Or, as Garp’s mother puts it in The World According to Garp (1982):
In this dirty minded world, you are either someone’s wife or someone’s whore. And if you’re not either people think there is something wrong with you . . . . But there is nothing wrong with me.
By the way, Madonna the pop star ingeniously exploited this quintessentially male neurotic complex through her “Material Girl” persona. Like Madonna, who evolved a much more aggressive female sexuality later in her career, Dawn eventually realizes that her sexuality is hers not only to control but also to use for her own purposes — including turning the tables on men by dominating them.
Still, in the second act Dawn’s “vagina dentata” terrifies her (and the young men who try to take advantage of her, as well as a good number of male viewers) because she thinks that she cannot control it. She believes (in error) that her condition prevents her from having sex. When she learns in the third act that this is not the case, the knowledge transforms her self-image.
Dawn realizes that she’s not a victim of her own biology, but a woman who is fully sexually empowered, albeit by a fluke of evolution (through an implied mutation caused by radiation exposure). She also learns that she can transform into an avenging aggressor when she needs to.
It’s not surprising that this feminist theme underlies the film’s often-funny (after its pace picks up) and always unnerving story. According to SFGate, Lichtenstein first learned about the “vagina dentata” myth in a Bennington College course taught by the well-known feminist academic Camille Paglia.
Nevertheless, the director avoids the preachiness that he criticizes in his film. In the opinion of SFGate writer Reyhan Harmanci, “[T]he film sits somewhere between feminist fairy tale, bold cultural critique and gory comedy.” In my opinion, it’s primarily a “gory comedy” that pushes the boundaries of horror in the area of sexual violence. The realization of the feminist cultural critique comes as you think about your strange gut reaction after the film has ended.