Friday, June 06, 2008

Teeth, Starring Jess Weixler, John Hensley, Hale Appleman and Ashley Springer, Written and Directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, Teeth and Dimension Extreme, 2007

I’m going to admit that I was extremely skeptical that this film would be any good at all. The trailers were kinda cheesy, the plot (a teenage girl discovers that she has a vagina dentata – that is, teeth in her vagina) was absurd, and the budget looked low. Not Troma low, mind you, but in that ballpark. A cast of very minor actors, a crackpot idea, and no dough can be a recipe for success, but are more often the things of which B-movies are made. It cheered me some that the film was written and directed by the son of artist Roy Lichtenstein, but not that much.

So when my boss loaned me his copy, I figured it couldn’t hurt to watch it. Even if it was as awful as I expected, there’d be the consolation of a scathing review waiting for me like the light at the end of the tunnel. If I made it through – what is it now? – nine Left Behind books then an hour and a half of cheesy film would prove a cakewalk.

Well, I’m glad I took the time. Teeth is never going to be more than a cult classic. Its subject matter guarantees that status no matter how fantastic the filmmaking. And it’s not fantastic filmmaking by any great stretch, but it is workmanlike in its simple craft. The actors are not stellar thespians, being mostly veterans of bit parts in television or other small movies or in some cases debuting in the flick. I suspect that the biggest disappointment is that Lichtenstein failed to recruit a truly first-rate cinematographer to give the film some visual panache. You’d expect the son of an artist who works in the visual medium to be sensitive to such concerns, but you can’t have everything.

A sort of pro-feminist argument (despite the scary vajayjay), Teeth is a sexual satire, taking aim squarely at both religious prudes who know not of which they speak and the male culture of sexual one-upmanship and competition to “score.” There is exactly one positive male character in the film’s whole run, rather implausibly in such circumstances, the step-father Bill (veteran character actor Lenny von Dohlen, probably vaguely recognizable to most viewers). He, however, is accompanied by his viciously unpleasant hardcore son Brad (John Hensley) whose early childhood you-show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine routine with Dawn ended with a nasty scar on his finger and a revulsion for standard genital intercourse, much to his current girlfriend Melanie’s discomfort and irritation.

The town and its environs, especially the school, are given a thorough going over by the filmmakers. Just behind our heroine, Dawn's home, we see the twin cooling towers of the local nuclear plant. No connection is ever made in the film between this and Dawn's condition and no other reference is made to the plants whatsoever. As far as memory goes, no one even mentions their existence, yet they turn up, framed for the most awful effect, a baleful trail of smoke leaking from their gaping mouths, yet another orifice promising then punishing. In the schools, sex ed has a decent summation of male genitalia, then they move on to the female part of the game only to find large stickers covering the pudenda. The teacher hems and haws, referring as obliquely and euphemistically as possible to "down there."

Dawn opens the film as one of the more charismatic and moving speakers for a pro-virginity religious group. This collection of teenage prudes are more than just against having sex before marriage. They stroll through malls being offended by advertisements and talk about their struggles with temptation. We soon seem to notice, true to form (as recent studies have indicated) that these paragons of teen virtue frequently succumb to such pleasures as making out in movies and double dating. Dawn is attracted to a new boy to the group, the blandly handsome Tobey (Hale Appleman) who is given one of the film’s funniest lines during a horrible later scene (“I haven’t even jerked off since Easter!”). The two teens fight temptation, trying to quit each other over the phone, then succumbing and going swimming together.

In a cave near the local make-out pond, Tobey attempts to feel up Dawn and in her struggles against this, she is knocked unconscious. When she comes to to find him raping her, her body strikes back, castrating him in one solid chomp. Thus begins the film's more hard-edged direction.

I won’t lie to you, now. This movie contains no less than three quite bloody, no holds barred, no cut-away shots, on film castrations. Plus the severing of all the fingers from a molestation-minded male OB-GYN.

What starts out as a premise lifted from primitive (and modern) men’s fear of sex, of the great unknown that is a woman’s interior life, sexually, emotionally, and mentally, becomes through Dawn’s experience instead an empowering feminist revenge fantasy. You see, the teeth don’t always bite. Dawn has at least one pleasurable sexual experience during which the teeth are nowhere to be seen, or felt in this case. It is only when the men in her life turn on her, through violence or by attempting to use her, that the teeth make their presence known.

Problematically, Dawn's sexual awakening moves too quickly. The prude, without any knowledge of her lower dental augmentation, scorns sex, returns from consciousness to find herself being raped, then kills a young man she is attracted to by castration. This is not a recipe for later sexual pleasures, though to be fair her next sexual experience does involve some kind of muscle relaxant, wine, candles, and appropriate atmosphere. That she takes so quickly, in a matter of days, to the business seems a bit flip, though of course decrying a film about a toothed vagina for lacking appropriate realism does seem a hair on the side of nitpickety.

The film's closing scenes, without giving much away, are among the most disturbing -- as the experience Dawn has after losing almost everything and hitchhiking off to parts unknown is probably a fairly common one. The slow creep of a smile she gets confronting her tormentor would stand as the most precise moment of greater-than-herself realization of her power. Previous uses of her fanged femininity were either reactions to trauma or acts of personal revenge for specific slights. What that smile contains in it is the doom of asshole males. At that moment, the film lives up to its billing as a proto-feminist and pro-feminist piece of art. At that moment, the film sluffs a kind of predictable satirical art and becomes much, much better.

Strange that one shot can turn a film from all right to damned good, but it happens. In that one second, it happens.

1 comment:

The Critic said...

a. told ya so.
b. go here for extra features that give you a flavor
c. and here