Comedy-Horror ‘Teeth’ Has a Weak Bite

Devious dark comedy Teeth is like a John Hughes filtered through a John Waters via a teenager’s impression of what a parable is. It’s got a weak bite.

It sounds both sinister and silly: vagina dentata – literal translation, female genitalia with teeth. Believe it or not, cultures all around the world have legends about this mysterious gender-specific power, a clear-cut allegory for what 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 perpetuate human life by giving birth to our future.

The indie horror comedy Teeth wants to add a few more mixed metaphors to this situation. Sometimes, it succeeds.

Abstinent Dawn (Jess Wexler) 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 sufficiently restrained them. Then Tobey (Hale Appleman), 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 – a toothed vulva. A horrific trip to the gynecologist confirms the worst. With her home life in shambles – sick mother, distant stepfather, pervy 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 the first film from Mitchell Lichtenstein working with his son, the famed artist Roy, Teeth doesn’t seem like the work of a mature 52-year-old. Instead, the tone of this devious dark comedy is like that of John Hughes, filtered through John Waters via a teenager’s impression of what a parable is. Much of its material is mired in a too-cutesy, too-clever idea of how to portray uncontrollable instinct.

On the other hand, the performances by Jess Weixler and 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 of a film gets some subtle, somewhat substantive treatment. With its R rating, Lichtenstein never comes right out and shows us the monster (like a Hustler Magazine might). Instead, we have to view Dawn as a suggested symbol.

Predictably, Teeth turns its dark tone toward men. 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 Roofie route to get in her goodies. (Roofie, short for Rohypnol, is a tranquilizer known as a “date rape” drug.)

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 ensure “No means NO!” Much of Teeth is puzzling and rather muddled. For his part, when he’s confused, our director calls on the F/X to give us some gory castration shots.

Other potential satiric targets are not explored. Dawn lives – The Simpsons‘ style – near a nuclear power plant. The potential genetic jerry-rigging such a facility might have on baby Dawn in the womb seems obvious, but it 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 Teeth fails to address this, too.

Teeth is only concerned with the 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. If you took away all the stuff in the film’s periphery and focused on the girl and her gimmick, the running time would end on the short film side.

Lichtenstein could have done more with this bizarre premise. 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. Unlike men, who are constantly reminded that they think with their penis more than anything else, such a story could be the antithesis of the “woman is the weaker sex” sentiment. An approach like that could be smart, funny, profane, uncompromising, and deeply thought-provoking. Alas, Lichtenstein is content to push a few teen porn buttons and move on. Even the making of material suggests nothing deeper than a slightly dirty joke was intended.

Still, thanks to sensational performances and clever insight, Teeth manages to transcend its implied trashiness – just. 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 it, Teeth might have been a minor masterpiece.

As it is, Teeth is a B-movie, schlock masquerading as something more meaningful. This is the type of premise that Doris Wishman would have driven into the ground. Better yet, imagine what David F. Friedman or Harry Novak would have done. Teeth is too polite and PC to follow in those glorious grindhouse footsteps. Too bad it doesn’t have more bite.