The FilmIt is, of course, mere coincidence that, within the space of a single day, I ended up tackling two films which each dealt, in their own way, with the vagina dentata myth. The second, the 1969 Italian erotic thriller The Frightened Woman, explores it in a fairly oblique way, but the film under consideration here, Teeth, is far more literal in its tackling of the myth.
Dawn (Jess Weixler) is different from other teenagers. For one thing, she belongs to a chastity group called the Promise, and does her bit to spread the good word by giving talks to schoolchildren about the joys of abstinence. For another, she is, anatomically speaking, rather unique, which becomes all too clear when one of her fellow celibates forces himself on her and ends up sans penis for his troubles. Dawn, you see, has a set of razor sharp fangs inside her vagina, and, while this might initially seem like a problem, she gradually begins to realise that, in a world seemingly populated exclusively by lecherous men, it could in fact be an advantage. Whoever said sex was a weapon was clearly on to something.
If nothing else, you’ve got to give writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein (son of artist Roy Lichtenstein) credit for managing to sell this concept to a semi-major studio. Storylines this provocative are generally reserved for obscure, independent productions, a case in point being Penetration Angst, an execrable no-budget British shocker from 2003 which boasts almost exactly the same story but none of the talent evident here. In this, his first feature (his only previous credit in the director’s chair is the 2004 short film Resurrection), he misjudges certain elements, particularly the overly bombastic music score, which is frequently at odds with what is happening on screen, but demonstrates something of a flare behind the camera and nets some impressive performances, particularly from the largely unknown Jess Weixler in the lead role.
Dawn is a tough part to play, requiring an actress who can maintain her dignity against seemingly insurmountable odds. For a good two-thirds of the film, the character’s head is lodged firmly in the clouds, seemingly completely ignorant about real life and her own body. (It’s a bit of a stretch to expect us to believe, that, at the age of sixteen or thereabouts, she isn’t aware that her body is not like other girls’, regardless of how sheltered her life might be.) Her beliefs are, not unreasonably, treated as a bit of a joke, but the character herself is given respect, and as a result the absurd things that happen to her gain an air of credibility. I’d go as far as to call Weixler’s performance revelatory: prior to watching this film, I’d never heard of her, and I now find myself wondering how such a talent can have passed under my radar. At the age of 26, you’d think she’d be too old for the role, but she completely convinces as an awkward teenager who hasn’t been touched by the outside world.
Weixler is the glue that holds the movie together, and it’s a good thing too, as the script itself suffers from a number of implausibilities and, worse still, cheap shortcuts, which become more apparent as the film progresses. Crucially, Lichtenstein makes the not entirely unexpected mistake of having all the men Dawn comes into contact with (and subsequently maims) be downright nasty pieces of work, ranging from a lecherous stepbrother to a dodgy gynaecologist who gets a little too familiar during an examination and ends up with considerably fewer fingers than he started out with as a result. It’s frustrating because of its predictability, and because it seems like something of a cop-out, allowing the film to sidestep some potentially difficult questions, such as why the audience is rooting for a serial killer/mutilator. And we do root for Dawn, at least until the crucial point at which she stops being appalled by the carnage she is leaving in her wake and starts finding it merely irritating. (The final scene even suggests that she is beginning to enjoy the process.)
What we’re therefore left with is a rather odd little movie that raises some potentially interesting questions but manages to dodge actually answering them. Crucially, Lichtenstein appears to be trying to say something about gender roles and biological horror (shades of early David Cronenberg abound), but more often than not instead opts to emphasise the blackly comedic element inherent in Dawn’s situation. Usually it works, but sometimes it’s detrimental (her reaction to the dismemberment of her third “victim” is amusing but out of character and also sets in motion the events which eventually lead to her losing our sympathy). In that regard, Lichtenstein’s closest counterpart, tonally, is probably Lucky McKee, whose debut feature, May, and the Sick Girl episode he directed for Masters of Horror, juggle the horror and the humour more effectively. Lichtenstein seems more at home with his characters, however, who exhibit the same quirkiness as McKee’s characters but also retain a fundamental realism.
Teeth is ultimately a highly promising debut feature that’s unique enough for me to recommend it on that basis alone. It has considerably more going for it than merely being different, however, most notably an excellent lead performance from an extremely promising actress and a quirky, infectious sense of humour. It’s not entirely satisfying, and it’s not quite as brave as its provocative premise might suggest, but it’s entertaining, engaging, and even strangely endearing. Be prepared to cross your legs, though.
The Weinstein Company have released Teeth under their new Dimension Extreme label, which, going by Dimension Films’ track record in the horror genre, seems like something of an oxymoron. Anyway, the film is presented anamorphically in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, close enough to its theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. It’s not a particularly impressive transfer, suffering from a considerable amount of softness but, despite this, exhibiting some pretty obtrusive compression artefacts. The reason for this, it seems, is that, despite being authored on a dual layer DVD, a mere 4.75 GB (of an available 8.5 GB) are filled, barely using the second layer at all. There’s no justifiable reason for this at all, short of complete incompetence, and it strikes me as an extremely inefficient use of resources.
The only audio track (barring the commentary) is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 at 448 Kbps. It’s a primarily dialogue-driven affair, with little in the way of directional effects and an overall fairly flat feel to it. Robert Miller’s grandiose score, which wouldn’t be entirely out of place in an epic or a disaster movie, certainly makes its mark, but with the detriment of overpowering some of the dialogue.
Optional English subtitles are provided for the film and all of the extras except the commentary.
A generous but not exactly packed array of extras has been provided, starting with an audio commentary with writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein. Unfortunately, it’s a thoroughly anaemic affair, with tonnes of dead space and bland comments which rarely go beyond the obvious. Somewhat better is the 29-minute behind-the-scenes documentary which follows, going into more depth than the average making-of piece, starting off by tracing the vagina dentate myth through history and the arts. Most of the key cast and crew are interviewed, and their comments go beyond the usual back-patting and bottom-licking that one tends to associate with featurettes like these. It’s quite clunkily edited, particularly in terms of the audio, but the content is, on the whole, good.
Also included are a handful of deleted scenes, provided with optional commentary by Lichtenstein, which is no more revealing than that on the final film itself. Most of the removed scenes don’t add a great deal to the narrative, but provide a few amusing character moments.
A trailer and a TV spot round out the package.
An entertaining and unusual little film is given frankly mediocre treatment on DVD, with a package that fails to distinguish itself and should have looked a lot better than it does.
7 out of 10
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7 out of 10
5 out of 10