By Jack Ford,
Guest Edited by Dafydd Jenkins.
While on the surface it may appear to be lazy gore, Teeth is in fact, a highly sensible social allegory masquerading as a fresh and inventive re-invention of the traditional horror film. Unfortunately overlooked on its original release, ten years on it still makes for subversive viewing and its ideas have only become more prescient.
As the film opens, young abstinence campaigner Dawn (Jess Weixler), an innocent, good-natured Christian teenager, is talking to a group of school children about her strongly held belief in the importance of remaining ‘pure’, extolling the virtues of abstinence and waiting for marriage before sex.
However, she is blossoming, and when a handsome new boy at her high school catches her eye, she can’t ignore her urges for much longer. Though she has feelings for him, she wants to wait until they’re married to act on them. He doesn’t. Instead, he tries to force the issue, but his actions end with him inexplicably losing a pendulous asset, the act of which causes him to pass out.
Dawn is shocked and baffled – she’s never had sex before, but she’s certain that wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t intentional, but she has no explanation for what happened. She investigates and comes across a legend from Native American folklore – vagina dentana (you can probably guess what that means.) She doesn’t want to believe it, but it makes sense.
Writer/director Michael Lichtenstein explores different attitudes toward sex and objectification of women, and focusing on this centuries-old myth illustrates how long women have been discouraged from embracing their sexuality. History is littered with such myths created to keep women as a subservient sex, and digging up this piece of history and re-framing it in the present day shows how we’re still holding on to these antiquated views about women’s virginity.
In line with its themes, the film uses Dawn’s sexual encounters to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual manipulation and abuse of women. Even in a place a woman believes to be safe, or if they are with someone they feel to be trustworthy, there will, unfortunately, always be the risk of malicious intent. As Dawn attempts to find out what’s happening to her, she has two such encounters. She trusts the men to whom she reaches out for help, only for that trust to be abused. Just as it was for the first boy in high school, it doesn’t end well for the male participants of these scenes.
On a technical level, Teeth is a highly effective sideways take on the slasher film. It takes the traditional trope of the genre – a couple getting frisky who meet a sticky end at the hands of a male assailant – then adds a layer of unflinching realism, and makes the female both the assailant and the hero at the same time. Dawn is the victim – for which we sympathise with her – but she’s also the cause of the gore in the film. In doing so, she saves herself and provides relief for the audience, as we did not have to see a horrific scene unfold. This endears us to her all the more.
As well as Dawn, we also have a glimpse into the peculiar life of her adoptive half-brother (John Hensley), who, protected by an attack dog he names ‘Mother’, seemingly spends all his time in his bedroom coercing his girlfriend into progressively extreme sexual acts. Despite his dedication to increasingly manipulative sexual pursuits, he lacks complete satisfaction. His subservience to his libido means he doesn’t come to his real mother’s aid when she calls for help – though it’s doubtful he would have helped her even if he had not been at the point of orgasm the time.
Teeth can be seen in a number of different ways: as a comment on the prevalence of sexual assault; the need for greater sex education (something that is severely restricted in many places around the world); an exaggeration of the changes experienced by young girls during puberty; an examination of the sexual restrictions of women throughout history and a subversion of the roles and conventions of its genre.
It is unusual for a film like this to be the product of a male filmmaker, especially with a female lead, but Lichtenstein approaches this sensitive subject thoughtfully, with integrity and an absence of flippancy. He also manages, in the key horror moments, to both shock the audience and also make them laugh – a penis-eating vagina is just an inherently funny idea.
Teeth comes together when Dawn finally works out how she can use her internal abnormality for good, and it ends on a bittersweet note. The film makes the point that even though Dawn has overcome the events of the film, and knows she can do so again, she will continue to encounter men with bad intentions. Given how much she has already suffered and how much she has had to give up, it’s sad to see her bad experiences will continue. Unfortunately, it’s also the same in the real world. Sexual assault still remains a problem, and real women don’t have the same means as Dawn to protect themselves from unwanted encounters.
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