Dawn (Jess Weixler), the protagonist of writer/director
Mitchell Lichtenstein’s playfully gynephobic black comedy Teeth, is a
high-school abstinence advocate whose no-sex-before-marriage stance masks her
deep discomfort with her own body. Because Teeth is also a horror movie, the
root of her fear is physical, not psychological — as Anne Carlisle put it in
the druggy downtown classic Liquid Sky, “this pussy has teeth.”
Thematically, this cheeky contemporary spin on vagina dentata is a little like a mash-up of Liquid Sky, Ms. 45, and the early career of David Cronenberg. Like Liquid Sky, in which a Connecticut androgyn living in New York is turned into a man-killing sex machine after an alien visitation (yes! look it up!), or Ms. 45, in which Abel Ferrara transforms his mute protagonist from a victim of violence and manipulation into an avenging angel, Lichtenstein is interested in a character who turns the tables on male aggression. And, like early Cronenberg, he’s at least superficially interested in the idea of bodily mutations, and how they can represent an expression of psychology. Dawn may live in the shadow of a looming nuclear power plant, but there’s also the suggestion that her condition is a spontaneous adaptation on behalf of her gender, a defense mechanism against millennia of exploitation by powerful, sexually aggressive men.
If this sounds heavy, forget it — like so many contemporary horror auteurs, Lichtenstein opts for cutesy. His great accomplice in making the sick joke work is Weixler herself, who comes on like a young Laura Dern, first bewildered and then intoxicated by the strange circumstances of her sexual awakening. The tonal shift in her performance from the shrinking violet of the first part to the man-eating vixen of the latter is a little blunt, but still enjoyable. This character endures so much — not just the vulgar male libido, but also the crude fingers of a sadistic gynecologist and the internalized sense of shame and fear that leads her to live out a parody of Christian virtue — that vengeance-is-mine is the only sensible trajectory for the plot to take.
So Teeth hits its stride as a dick-snapping good time, as Dawn quickly becomes acclimated to the power she wields to reward her suitors with pleasure, and/or to punish them with a special kind of decapitation. (Those scenes seem smartly calibrated to go down especially well with an enthusiastic audience — I could only imagine the pandemonium that must have erupted when the money shots hit the screen at festival screenings.) It all works well enough that I wish it had been less of a cartoon — that there was more nuance in the relationship between Dawn and her parents (what was their take on her public vows of chastity anyway?), that her asshole step-brother wasn’t such an obviously randy target, or that Lichtenstein had made more points about the world around his high-concept heroine. I’ll admit that I’d like to have seen a sympathetic character or two — even Thelma and Louise had that one guy who was trying to help them — but Teeth is good stuff: a ferocious cautionary tale for men, and a parable of empowerment for women who need to stop taking shit from the dickheads around them. B