Teeth (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein
viewed: 05/12/08

“This pussy has teeth!”

That is a quote that I’ve always remembered from the cult classic Liquid Sky (1982), from a performance art piece in a film that is essentially a performance art piece.  But just to say, even as a teen with no context or knowledge of history or anatamy or feminism, I got the meaning.  Emasculating, female empowering, a statement of strength and threat.

When I was at some film earlier this year, I saw a trailer for Teeth, a horror/comedy about vagina dententa, an ancient fear and legend about quite literally, a vagina with teeth in it.  The trailer focuses on a scene in which a gynecological exam happens, tensing around her abnormality, and ultimately its chomping ability.  I found it intriguing partially because this trailer showed in the “art house” leaning Landmark Theater chain and not the straight up mainstream horror distribution.  So, what we have here is an “intellectual” horror/comedy about a girl with teeth in her vagina.  It came and went in the cinema fast, but got pretty good reviews.

The problem that I had with this film was its ability to navigate the different tropes it tries to gather together.   The very cute Jess Weixler plays Dawn, the girl with the teeth, who begins the film as a hardcore abstinence-touting virgin, naive and committed, innocent to the extreme.  Partially, this is a need of the film, I guess.  She has to be that naive to have never explored her vagina to find the teeth therein.  But for the starting point of this character to be so far in this direction, her change and evolution over the duration of the film (only a couple of days) into a avenging angel of sorts.  Her turn to sexual maturity happens way too fast.  That change lacks believability.

It’s a shame, because Weixler is good, dewy-eyed, pretty like the girl-next-door, and she delivers a sincerity that starts as believable.  But let’s face it, this is a far-out fantasy, but still…it didn’t work.  Her brother, whose unlikeability is ridiculous, her rapists, who are essentially everyone, are also overdone.

The gore factor is pretty intense.  The comedy is occasionally double-entendred (after “biting” off her boyfriend’s penis, she tells her parents “I ate”, when asked if she needed dinner.).  There is also the ubiquitous dog eating the chopped-off penis of one of the bad guys.  This film has a bit of a personality disorder.  It tries to play the intellectual, occasionally the raw comedy, and only partially the gore-fest horror film.

I was struck by the final shot, in which Dawn gives an “aside” look toward the camera, signifying her plan to chomp off the penis of her latest harrasser, implying an empowerment, an awareness, a signifier of her awakened self.  It reminded me of the final shot of Catherine Breillat’s coming of age film, 36 Fillette (1988) in which the precocious and mixed-up heroine gives a look of “knowledge” and a smile acknowledging her sense of self coming out of having lost her virginity.  In 36 Fillette that knowledgeable look might be controvertial but it made sense.  In Teeth, it’s somewhat troubling.

The empowerment of the ability to emasculate is not so much a superpower, but a defense mechanism.  Dawn has to be physically penetrated in order to take action.  It’s a complex mixture of strength and vulnerability that the film doesn’t fully address.  And her vengeance and attitude, swung from dedicated innocence to malevolent violence is just not an arc that fails to ring true.

So, the bottom line, this film didn’t work for me.  I didn’t like it.  It’s not terrible, but it’s a failure in my mind.  The other notable thing about the film is that director Mitchell Lichtenstein is the son of Pop Art painter Roy Lichtenstein.  Not that that really has any bearing on anything.

I imagine that there are a lot of men who will take a visceral fear from this film.

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