Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Jess Weixler, John Hensley, Josh Pais, Hale Appleman, Lenny von Dohlen, Vivienne Benesch, Ashley Springer
Directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein
Distributed by Dimension Extreme
I approached watching the Teeth DVD with trepidation. Words like “female empowerment,” “courageous,” and “alarming cautionary tale” adorn the box, causing me some concern that what I was about to see would wind up being the by-product of the typical male fantasy of a predatory pubescent babe who turns out to be the de rigueur invincible “final girl” so prevalent on today’s horror scene. I couldn’t have been more pleased to be wrong.
While Teeth definitely qualifies as a genre film, it has much more in common with smart, pre-Juno teen-centric indie fare like Saved and, to some extent, Heathers and Donnie Darko, which portray modern kids realistically and respectfully while simultaneously satirizing the culture in which they live. Teeth is equal parts black comedy, squirm-inducing vengeance story, and social satire. It looks like a million bucks, too — Lichtenstein managed to squeeze every last bit of quality out of a budget that was undoubtedly low in quantity. The production value is quite remarkable with each dollar showing up onscreen.
But I digress. Teeth‘s ad campaign made it pretty obvious what it’s about, but in case you missed it somehow or aren’t clear on the plot, let me summarize. Dawn (Weixler) isn’t your typical high schooler. Sadly, her mother is dying so her parents are too distracted to see that she’s having trouble with her transition into womanhood. But Dawn is a good girl of faith and virtue. She’s taken a sacred vow of chastity until marriage and serves as a role model for her fellow virgins. She gives speeches at abstinence rallies and wears t-shirts that proclaim “I’m Waiting.” Nonetheless, the flashback to her childhood that opens the film gives us an inkling that maybe there’s some deeper psychological — or possibly physiological — reason for her repressed sexuality. It also may have something to do with why her stepbrother Brad (Hensley) is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by her. Two massive nuclear reactor towers loom ominously over their hometown, pumping toxic smoke 24/7, leading the audience to the conclusion that her “condition” is the result of some sort of radioactive genetic mutation. And exactly what is that condition? Vagina dentata, aka toothed vagina. I’ll wait while it sinks in …
Poor Dawn. She starts out so sweet and pure, but once Tobey (Appleman), a fellow celibate, crosses her path, her hormones start raging, and before long the two of them are making out hot and heavy. To be fair, she sends him some pretty mixed signals, but he takes things way too far way too fast and, in an over- stimulated frenzy, begins to rape her. She struggles against him, he enters her anyway, and suddenly he’s screaming along with her. But whereas her cries are from anger and disbelief at what’s happening, his are from extreme pain. “From what?” you might ask. Lest you’ve forgotten the previous paragraph, vagina dentata, that’s what. Over the course of the rest of the film, Dawn encounters plenty of bad apples on whom to test out her newly discovered choppers, and the camera doesn’t shy away from the carnage. Show this one to your squeamish friends, and be prepared to laugh at their reactions to the numerous severed penis gags almost as much as at Teeth itself.
Vagina dentata is a myth that has existed in almost every civilization since the beginning of recorded history. As with most allegories, many of these involve a man heroically overcoming the dangerous teeth in one way or another and “saving” the woman. Others see it as a castration device and focus on the threat of a man’s diminution from entering into the dark world of a woman’s genitalia. Teeth touches upon both metaphors and then goes way beyond them.
Dawn’s character arc is one of the most challenging I’ve seen in a film in some time, and Weixler more than rises to the occasion. She’s by turns innocently endearing, tragically sympathetic, and, upon coming into her own by finally embracing her inner payback dispenser, utterly chilling. She knocks this one out of the park … and over the wall … and all the way to the back row of the parking lot. Ellen Page may have garnered most of the press last year, but Jess Weixler’s portrayal of Dawn is just as deserving of attention. She alternately reminded me of a young chaste Charlotte from “Sex and the City” and Claire from “Heroes” with dashes of Helen Hunt, Drew Barrymore, and Heather Graham added into the mix. That girl is going places, and I hope they include more horror projects. Her facial expressions are ultra natural and revealing. Actresses who can play likable, intelligent — and tough — chicks believably are few and far between, but she does it so well it seems effortless.
Hensley’s Brad is just as credible thanks to Lichtenstein’s script and direction. Not only is he an emerging super-talent, he steals every scene he’s in with his smoldering animal magnetism. Josh Pais (the predatory gynecologist Dawn visits) and Lenny von Dohlen (Dawn’s stepfather and the only decent male she knows) should be familiar to viewers from their many years in both movies and television. The rest of the cast is mostly comprised of unknowns, but everyone ably pulls his or her weight with no complaints from this reviewer. There are a few moments when the pacing lags, but overall Teeth is lean and mean and delivers pointed commentary on the gamut of issues and emotions young people deal with nowadays, all with a wicked sense of humor and healthy servings of exaggerated, yet convincing, gore. And the music, much of it by Lichtenstein’s brother, fits in perfectly. All in all, Teeth stands out as one of the best recent coming of age tales, and the fact that it’s told from the female point of view makes it all the more engaging.
The DVD extras, while not quite so praiseworthy, are plentiful. They’re comprised of a commentary by Lichtenstein, a half-hour behind-the-scenes featurette, five deleted scenes with optional commentary, a TV spot, and trailers. As usual, it’s obvious why the deleted scenes were removed, but one of them, which explains why Dawn didn’t turn to her closest friends in her time of need, should have been left in to fill one of the main plot holes that momentarily took me out of the experience. The featurette is by far the most informative supplement; it offers in-depth interviews with everyone from Lichtenstein to the stars to director of photography Wolfgang Held, production designer Paul Avery, and costumer designer Rita Ryack. They dissect Teeth to the nth degree including the characters’ motivations, numerous vagina dentata legends and theories, how the various sets were decorated, the real-life organizations that provided inspiration for The Promise (Dawn’s abstinence group), along with discussions about contemporary teen sexual behavior and mores. I have no idea how, but they managed to pack 60 minutes’ worth of information into less than 30. It’s a good thing, too, because as for the commentary, we don’t have a case of less is more but rather less is painfully less.
Lichtenstein starts things off amusingly enough with a story about his problems with a few members of the Austin neighborhood where they did a good amount of shooting. It seems the locals were convinced the project was pornographic. He tells a few more anecdotes, interspersing pauses at just the right moments to let the events of the film emphasize his points. From there, however, things take a downward turn. The lapses become longer and longer and begin dragging the viewer down. I was literally getting antsy waiting for him to say something. I’m all for letting a story speak for itself, but it was such a wasted opportunity, and I could hardly believe this was the same man who was so loquacious and interesting in the featurette. When he did speak, it was primarily about the score and soundtrack. I agree it was awesome, but so was just about everything else in Teeth. Finally we approached the end. Surely he would sum up his message or at least address the closing scene. Nope. Not happening. As the screen faded to black, the only words out of his mouth were, “And that song is …” Argh! Minus one knife for having one of the lamest commentaries in history!
But that’s the only thing lame about Mitchell Lichtenstein. He’s written and directed one helluva movie here that’s bound to spark controversy and fuel more than a few heated arguments. And the timing couldn’t be better. With a woman potentially closing in on the White House, debates about gender roles and biases are taking place all around us. Some will see Dawn as a monster; others as an avenging angel. Is she the product of nature or nurture or both? In the end it really doesn’t matter. It’s evolution, baby! You better be ready, or else you’re liable to wind up like this guy:
4 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5
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