Horror movies: You know the drill. Oversexed, nubile, blond teenage girls cavort shamelessly with horny teenage boys until the bad guy murders them -- often with with a phallic weapon and abundant fake blood. Although the boys are in pretty much equal danger of being dead before the final credits, it's almost always the girls who are portrayed as most vulnerable and in need of protection. Why? Well, because girls have vaginas, which puts them at danger of being attacked by the male half of the population. Therefore, we must costume them in the most revealing ways possible, make them aware of their own sexuality, and then punish them for it with death. That way, when we kill the girls off, it'll kind of be their own fault for being such sluts. It's not just horror films, of course; from thrillers to romantic comedies, women are endlessly at the mercy of their vaginas. And therein lies the appeal of Teeth, a different kind of horror film, which just played the Sundance Film Festival.
The film revolves around Dawn, a squeaky-clean blond too good to be true. Dawn is one of the leaders of Promises, a teen chastity group whose members pledge to save themselves for marriage. Dawn has problems of her own -- her mother is very sick and her perverted pothead of a stepbrother has the hots for her -- but nonetheless, Dawn is always cheerful and smiling, even when her peers make fun of her chastity pledge. Dawn is sweet and pure and unblemished -- until she meets a cute boy at a Promises meeting and she starts to feel the first twinges of teenage lust. All is well, though, until Mr. Purity wants to take things too far, and Dawn's body fights back. Literally.
Dawn, you see, is the myth of the "vagina dentata" incarnate. The term "vagina dentata" -- which is really about men's fears around female sexuality and the act of intercourse -- revolves around a story about a toothed vagina that can decapitate a male's manhood. Chomp. The vagina dentata, according to many of the myths, can only be conquered by a hero who "breaks" the teeth of the vagina, thus making his conquest a Real Woman. Teeth plays around with this myth a bit. Dawn's mutation, something that scares her at first, turns out to be both her protector and her most powerful weapon. What's particularly interesting about Teeth, though, is the character arc Dawn follows.
As a devotedly chaste virgin, Dawn is all innocence and radiant purity. She's so chaste she doesn't even touch herself. When she first discovers her vagina is equipped with it's own rape protection system, at first Dawn is freaked out. Then she begins to realize that her difference empowers her. She no longer has to live in fear of her stepbrother's sexual attraction to her, or worry about date rape or random perverts; her vagina, rather than her greatest weakness, is her greatest weapon. As Dawn accepts this power and makes it her own, she evolves from passive young woman afraid of her own sexuality to fearless sexual avenger. Her greatest weakness, therefore, becomes her greatest strength.
That's really what makes Teeth so appealing -- a young woman who's not a victim, who takes her vulnerability and makes it a powerful weapon, is not something you see every day (one of my favorite films of last year, Hard Candy, also took a seemingly vulnerable young woman and made her the one in control; although Hard Candy was a darker and more serious flick, the arcs are similar). Teeth, though, doesn't even try to take itself too seriously, and that's half the fun.
The film, in what seems to be a film fest trend of late with other horror-comedy flicks like Fido, Black Sheep, and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (another horror film in which the female victim took power over her vulnerability) is campy in a deliberate way without being over the top, and the best way to enjoy it is to just appreciate it for what it is. This isn't a More-Serious-Than-Thou film fest offering; it's a fun exploration of feminine sexual power seen through the twisted kaleidoscope lens of a horror-comedy. Some will dismiss Teeth as nothing more than a lot of penis-decapitating grossness (and there is a fair amount of that which, if Harvey Weinstein has his way, will not get cut out of the theatrical release -- sorry, guys), but there's more going on under the horror-flick surface if you look a little closer.
Writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein knows his subject matter is a bit absurd, and he knows he's not making a serious war documentary; this is a fun exploration of female sexuality, and Lichtenstein doesn't try to make it more than that. Jess Weixler's performance is a perfect blend of strength and vulnerability (she won a Grand Jury acting award at Sundance for her role in the film), and John Hensley shows great promise as Brad, the bad-ass stepbrother.
Teeth is the kind of movie that older teen and college-age young women, in particular, ought to see and then discuss in small groups with older women as mentors. What does the film say about the sexual power of women? What does it say about women as victims? And can you take the desire not to be victimized too far down the other path?
For another perspective on Teeth, check out Scott Weinberg's take.