It’s been a while since we had filmmakers like Russ Meyer and John Waters, or anyone for that matter, making movies that assumed the audience was capable of being shocked. Instead we’ve had the torture porn genre, which operates under the idea that the more blood and gore there is, the louder the audience will shriek. Given the diminishing returns on the Saw and Hostel series, though, it seems that concept is running out of steam too.
So, in comes Mitchell Lichtenstein, who takes a delightfully retrograde approach to exploitation and horror with Teeth and succeeds marvelously. Reinventing one of history’s most enduring urban legends, Lichtenstein cobbles together a satire-horror-farce-vigilante drama that works thanks to its straight-faced sincerity, both in the script and in the presence of its leading lady, Jess Weixler. Playing Dawn, the virginal Christian who discovers her unusual anatomy in a most unfortuate way, Weixler’s bright-eyed purity convincingly gives way to a steely resolve over the course of Dawn’s strange journey. She elevates Teeth above a standard horror movie and in the process becomes a kind of feminist icon, a steel trap disguised in soft curves and a cute dress.
After a brief childhood prologue we first meet Dawn as she speaks to a group of middle schoolers about the virtue of saving sex for marriage. Despite living with a sex-crazed step-brother (John Hensley) who’s always had an eye for her, Dawn has never considered sex as an option, even when she meets a cute new student named Tobey (Hale Appelman) who also wears a promise ring on his finger. But Tobey doesn’t have quite the same moral, and only after he tries to rape her does Dawn discover the secret she harbors.
The Latin term is vagina dentata, and in case you haven’t guessed yet, it means she has teeth down there. Dawn is terrified when Tobey dies from his injuries, and a visit to a handsy gynecologist (Josh Pais) results in four dismembered digits. As Dawn’s cancer-stricken mom gets sicker, her step-brother’s activity more disturbing and her genital mutation more confusing, Dawn tries to take refuge with a sweet fellow student, but realizes his intentions may not be entirely noble either.
As absurd as its premise is, Teeth is set in a world that is entirely realistic, where people live in crappy houses, blended families don’t always work out that well, and most high schoolers aren’t all that sexually experienced. Writer-director Lichtenstein’s attempts to take jabs at stifling suburbia or the problems of saving sex until marriage don’t really coalesce, and Dawn’s strange family dynamics don’t amount to much other than to stay away from the step-brother with a scary dog and porn on his walls. But the piont of any good exploitation movie is to make you shriek and laugh, and Teeth does that so well that you forgive its clumsy attempts to be something more grand.
There’s no lack of severed penises or spurting blood, not to mention some killer visual jokes, so Teeth is perfect for the vocal midnight movie crowd. But under the gleeful gore is a sadder story, about a girl who has lost control of her body, and who can’t take pleasure in her ultimate secret weapon because she can’t understand it. Dawn eventually learns to revel in her new role as a, forgive me, Vag-ilante (credit is due to Miss Sojourner “You Can’t Handle The” Truth for that one), but her journey to that place is genuinely touching, and almost overshadowed by the movie’s exploitation appeal.
As someone who usually has no tolerance for horror, I loved every minute of watching Teeth, especially with the buoyant crowd and a group of friends who laughed and gasped at all the right moments. It’s a feminist horror movie, an updated version of old-fashioned exploitation that lobs a few gentle barbs at the way we are now. But mostly it’s a damn good time, and it overcomes its tonal inconsistency and lacking characters by completely buying into its crazy premise. It’s no masterpiece, but Teeth has introduced the world to vagilante justice, and for that we can all be grateful.