It sounds both sinister, and kind of silly: vagina dentata - literal translation, female genitalia with teeth. Believe it or not, cultures all around the world have legends about this mysterious gender power, a clear cut allegory for the control women have over men. While much of what makes up the folklore derives from ignorance, imagination, and just a wee bit of old world paternal superstition, it’s clear that the biological battle of the sexes is less than a fair fight. Women mandate conception, give birth to the future, and more or less determines the destiny of the human race. The indie horror comedy Teeth wants to add a few more mixed metaphors to this situation. Sometimes, it succeeds. At other instances, it’s the crotch version of a circus geek.
Abstinent Dawn is dedicated to ‘The Promise’, a school program that promotes purity and virginity. Ever since she reached puberty, she’s been at war with her hormones, and so far, religious fervor has kept them at bay. Then Tobey, a new boy in town, tests her moralistic mantle. When an innocent date turns deadly, Dawn fears something is wrong with her womb. Seeking the counsel of the Internet, she learns a shocking truth - she may have vagina dentate, or a toothed vulva. A horrific trip to the gynecologist confirms the worst. With her home life in shambles - sick mother, distant stepfather, perverted stepbrother - she turns to another neighborhood boy for help. But with everyone’s thoughts on sex, it’s not long before her mandibled mommy parts start seeking revenge.
As a first film from Mitchell, the son of famed artist Roy, Lichtenstein, Teeth doesn’t seem like the work of mature 52 year old. Instead, the tone of this devious dark comedy is like John Hughes filtered through John Waters via a teenager’s impression of what a parable is. Much of the material here is mired in a too cutesy, too clever idea of how to portray uncontrollable instinct. On the other hand, the performances of Jess Weixler as Dawn, John Hensley as metalhead sibling Brad, and Lenny von Dohlen as tormented stepdad Bill bring a real truth to the subject’s treatment. What could have easily been a Hustler Magazine level joke gets some subtle, somewhat substantive treatment. Yet Lichtenstein never comes right out and shows us the ‘monster’. Instead, we have to view Dawn as a suggested symbol, and that’s where some of the problem lies.
And then there is the tone taken toward males. Dawn’s stepbrother Brad only wants to explore the incestual aspects of their relationship. New boy Tobey becomes an ersatz rapist before meeting his demise. A doctor drops the professional decorum to more or less violate his client, and the mixed up neighbor who lusts for Dawn longingly goes the Ruffee route to get in her goodies. To hear Lichtenstein tell it, a man’s libido is the most angry and aggressive facet of foreplay and fornication. Our heroine responds by using her inner ‘protection’ to insure “No means NO!” Much of Teeth is puzzling and rather muddled. For his part, when he’s confused, our director simply calls on the F/X to give us some gory castration shots.
Other potential satiric targets are never explored. Dawn lives, Simpsons’ style, near a nuclear power plant. The potential genetic jerryrigging such a facility could create is completely ignored. So is Brad’s preference for anal sex. Of course, we make the connection (it must have something to do with that game of ‘Doctor’ he played with Dawn when they were kids), but the movie fails to address it upfront. If all that’s important is our lead’s coming of age, and her decision to use her privates as punishment, Teeth certainly spends a lot of time beating around the bush (no pun intended). In fact, if you took away all the periphery and simply focused on the girl and her gimmick, the running time would end up on the short film side.
Clearly, Lichtenstein could have done more with the premise. The ending feels like the middle act of the movie - or worse, the set up for a sequel. It’s possible to see Dawn as a post-modern feminist heroine, a gal harnessing the power of her gender to eliminate those who merely want to exploit it. And unlike men, who are constantly reminded that they think with their penis more than anything else, such a story could be the antithesis of a ‘weaker sex’ sentiment. It could be smart, funny, profane, uncompromising, and deeply thought provoking. None of this is evident in the approach Lichtenstein takes, however. He’s just happy to push a few teen proto-porn buttons and move on. Even the making of material suggests that nothing much deeper than a slightly dirty joke was intended.
Still, thanks to some sensational performances and a clever insight or two, Teeth manages to transcend its implied trashiness. We can even forgive the unnecessary nude scene that Weixler had to endure. Had Lichtenstein taken a more Funny Games style look at his subject (in a good way), deconstructing the sex comedy and our expectations of same, this might have been a minor masterpiece. Instead, it’s a rock solid b-movie, schlock masquerading as something more meaningful. This is the kind of premise that Doris Wishman would have driven into the ground - or better yet, imagine what Dave Friedman or Harry Novak would have done. Teeth is too polite and PC to follow in those glorious grindhouse footsteps. It really should have reconsidered such a stance.