Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/28/08 00:00:00

"Hate To Say It, But It Bites"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“Teeth” is a film that sounds like what might result if a group of Psych 101 students were suddenly charged with making a low-budget genre movie that would combine the ickiness and intellectual underpinnings of David Cronenberg’s early body horror movies with the jaw-dropping outrageousness of something that might have been produced by the cheerful vulgarians at Troma Studios. On the surface, that may seem like an intriguing premise for a movie and if it had been made by the likes of Cronenberg or Troma, it might have resulted in something truly distinctive and memorable. Unfortunately, as “Teeth” progresses, it feels like it was made by students so dedicated to their studies that they never got around to seeing the kind of movies that they are trying to emulate in order to see how they work and, more importantly, how they don’t work and their results are so disappointing that they take a genuinely provocative premise and render it absolutely toothless.

Our heroine is Dawn (Jess Weixler), a prim, proper and sweet-natured girl who is the leader of her high-school’s chastity movement, possibly as the result of a long-ago and barely-remembered childhood trauma at the hands (well, fingers) of creepy half-brother Brad (John Hensley) that we get to witness in a prologue. Alas, even the purest of hearts can be driven to temptation and Dawn soon finds her heart (and other parts, no doubt) going pitter-pat at the sight of Tobey (Hale Appleman), a new student who also belongs to the chastity movement. After some chaste flirtation, the two go off to a remote swimming hole one day for some wholesome fun when Tobey’s baser urges take control and he forces himself upon Dawn. This proves to be a big mistake on his part for a few seconds later, he is suddenly and swiftly castrated by unknown means and bleeds to death while crabs eventually make off with the evidence, if you know what I mean.

Dawn is, of course, traumatized and when a visit to a creepy gynecologist also ends badly (for him), she begins doing some research of her own–not that easy, at first, since her high school has stickered over all the pictures of human genitalia in the health books in order to protect innocent minds from what is going on in the bathing suit area–and discovers that she may be the living embodiment of vagina dentata, a particularly misogynistic bit of mythology based on the belief that some women have teeth lining the insides of the their vagina. Whether this condition is borne out of her body developing a defense system to back up her personal belief system or if it is merely the result of growing up in the shadow of a nearby nuclear power plant, Dawn is scared and confused and, perhaps inevitably, finds herself in the arms of another classmate, the seemingly romantic and tender Ryan (Ashley Springer), in the hopes of finding a cure for her condition. They do sleep together with no ill effects but when Dawn discovers that he got her into bed under false and especially sleazy pretenses, she decides to go for another round and this time, it isn’t very good for him, if you know what I mean. Now that she has figured out how to control her new-found power, Dawn sets off to correct some wrongs, starting with the increasingly depraved and psychotic Brad.

“Teeth” marks the debut of writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein (yes, he is the son of Roy) and with its blend of sex, violence, social satire and psychology, it is definitely one of the more ambitious first films to come along in a while. The problem with the film, and I hate to say it because it requires me to use a pun that is both painfully unfunny and so crashingly obvious that I suspect that dozens of other critics will also use it, is that after a few minutes, it becomes clear that Lichtenstein has bitten off far more than he can chew. Combining horror and comedy is an extraordinarily difficult proposition–among the few films to really pull the combination off are “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein,” “An American Werewolf in London” and “Scream”–and if it is done incorrectly, you run the risk of winding up with a film that is too grisly to be funny and too silly to be scary. That is a complicated enough trick for even a veteran director to pull off and to then add in the elements of psychology and social satire require a filmmaker who is the auteurist equivalent of those guys who used to spin a dozen plates on Ed Sullivan. Here, Lichtenstein has a lot of ambitious ideas for his film but not the skills to pull them off and after a while, all he is left with is a bunch of broken crockery on the floor. The comedy, for the most part, isn’t very amusing–he tries for a deadpan approach but takes it so far that the proceedings are nearly somnolent–and the horror elements, while gory and convincing enough to ensure that most male audience members will be watching the film in a crouch, never develop the necessary tension to make them particularly effective. In an especially strange decision, Lichtenstein makes us wait over 45 minutes for the first manifestation of Dawn’s condition (not counting that brief childhood prologue)–this might prove to be an inspired choice to people who walk into the film with absolutely no idea as to what it is about but since it is unlikely that anyone will be buying a ticket for “Teeth” without knowing the basic premise, it just feels like it is spinning its wheels for nearly an hour before springing a surprise that is neither a surprise nor quite worth the extended buildup.

Because the myth of vagina dentata is one that is both deeply offensive to an entire gender and loaded with enough religious, cultural and sociological baggage to have inspired untold numbers of term papers over the years, you would think that a film that is basing its entire existence around that myth would want to deal with it in a way that would either explode it or exploit it.. And yet, while “Teeth” does have the nerve to bring it out into the open, it doesn’t really seem to have anything of value to say about the subject. There are provocative ideas swimming about here and there about male fears of a castrating female out for revenge against the gender that has kept her under their collective thumb for far too long–devotees of Camille Paglia would have a field day here–but in terms of executing them in a witty or insightful manner, this film makes the likes of “Basic Instinct” or “Baise Moi” look intellectual by comparison. Maybe if Lichtenstein had spent more time considering the ramifications of his premise and less time adding in jokey insert shots of the nuclear power plant’s cooling towers looming in the background (“The China Syndrome” didn’t have this many cooling tower shots), he might have come up with something stronger and more interesting. (I have just discovered that Lichtenstein actually had Camille Paglia as one of his college instructors–for his sake, I hope she graded him pass/fail.)

The one thing in “Teeth” that really does work is the smart, sweet and sexy lead performance from newcomer Jess Weixler as Dawn. It would have been very easy to play Dawn as a one-note caricature but Weixler goes far beyond that and transforms the character into a full-blooded and three-dimensional portrait of a young woman going through the kind of coming-of-age traumas that make Carrie White’s seem like a walk in the park by comparison. Watching her transform from doe-eyed innocent into a steely-eyed instrument of revenge for generations of gender inequality is a genuine pleasure and when she hits the road at the end to spread the news (among other things), you want to get up and follow along with her, preferably into a movie that better utilizes her obvious talents.

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