At the screening of Teeth that I attended, female journalists squealed with delight at the sight of scumbag men being castrated by Dawn (Jess Weixler), an abstinence-promoting high school girl saddled with a curious case of vagina dentata, that mythical condition in which a woman's nether regions are lined with sharp teeth. A legend obviously rooted in male fears of female sexuality, director Mitchell Lichtenstein depicts it as a tool for female empowerment, as Dawn's efforts to come to terms with her strange and terrifying gift inevitably lead to a realization that it grants her dominion over all the cretins who want to deflower her. Thus, the glee that greeted the multiple severed penises, while disconcerting on a basic level (my god, are women really this tickled by castration!?), makes some sort of sense as a response to years of horror films in which men have exerted violence (often sexual in nature) against women. Nonetheless, their reaction continues to be puzzling, given that Teeth is generally so crude and schematic that it seems the only proper reaction to these climactic images is unsurprised, eye roll-accompanied groans.

An opening message that "No Men Were Harmed During the Making of This Film" immediately reveals not just Lichtenstein's goal to blend horror with comedy but, specifically, the brand of corny-cute humor he plans to employ. Initial glimpses of a nuclear power plant towering over Dawn's neighborhood (seemingly ripped straight from The Simpsons) cast an amusingly eerie pall over the early going, but any promise of a uniquely bizarre atmosphere quickly dissipates as the director introduces us to Dawn, the leader of a Christian youth movement that counsels kids to keep it in their pants until marriage. Dawn is sunny, cheery and attractive, and it's clear from the outset that one of her male classmates also devoted to abstinence -- a recent transfer to the school named Tobey (Hale Appleman) -- fancies her. Lichtenstein thinks that by making Dawn a doggedly chaste individual, his premise is somehow funnier than if she were just an average, everyday teen. Yet the result is the exact opposite, as her transition from snow-white good girl to blood-red avenger is so broad that she feels like little more than a punchline to some dreary bar room joke. Dawn discovers her vagina's special ability when Tobey, heretofore sweet and respectful, attempts to rape her at a lake and winds up short one key appendage, and every one of Dawn's subsequent victims are presented as similarly ugly predators. By making Teeth about a woman's opposition to such mistreatment, Lichtenstein thinks he's providing a corrective to standard horror conventions. Unfortunately, by positing Dawn's murders as the byproduct of some ill-defined revenge mission, and by staging the second half as a series of set-ups for murderous money shots, he mimics the bloody movies he wants to subvert. Dawn's motivation for actively wielding her vagina dentata against creeps is never complexly developed, so what she's apparently after isn't so much empowerment, as merely vengeance, a simplistic formulation that leaves the film as a role-reversal slasher flick with not much more to say about sexual power dynamics than Eli Roth's empty-headed Hostel: Part II.

Weixler's perky wholesomeness does much to keep the first act afloat, and despite its predictability, Dawn's visit to the gynecologist strikes a perfect tonal balance between ludicrousness and nastiness. But whereas Slumber Party Massacre (a kindred spirit, at least in intent) attempted an analogous brand of proto-feminism from within the horror genre, Teeth wants to critique its forbearers from the comfy confines of comedy, a tack which -- especially given how lame said comedy frequently is -- hopelessly blunts its visceral impact. Dawn methodically goes about dispatching a host of men, culminating [Spoiler Alert, for the three people who won't see it coming] with her half-brother Brad (John Hensley), a misogynistic punk who spends most of his time behaving callously to his girlfriend while incestuously pining for Dawn. And as her killing spree ramps up, Teeth increasingly piles on the gruesome gore to augment its shock tactics and, more fundamentally, to distract attention away from the fact that it's long since ceased to offer anything like insight or inventiveness.

For more perspectives on Teeth, check out Kim's review here, and Scott's review here.