Skip to content

Film Review: Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007)

March 28, 2019

This review was posted on Facebook in 2009 and thankfully, I was able to preserve it before Michael Booth got my account disabled.


Mitchell Lichtenstein states in the documentary Teeth:  Behind the Scenes  that Teeth is a female empowerment fantasy, but that he is not sure whether the film is a feminist film.  I think that it certainly is, and its bleak ending is the key to this interpretation in a film full of subtext to which it occasionally falls prey.

Lichtenstein, a son of the pop art painter Roy Lichtenstein, is as influenced by comicbooks as his father was.  While his father focused on creating pastiches of the war and romance comics popular in his day as full-canvas paintings that mocked the printing style of old comicbooks, Mitchell has his hero, Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Weixler) living in the loom of two coolant towers of a nuclear power plant, although nothing is ever mentioned in the dialogue about it.  Lichtenstein insists that Dawn, who (if this is a horror story) is structurally the monster, is not a monster but a superhero.  She is allowed to live at the end, but her entire world is shattered while she is still a minor without even a diploma.  The only plausible feminist turn for her story to take after the film ends is for her to be constantly on the run like the Hulk, and only able to use her power if she becomes prey for rapists, and if she goes out looking for trouble and deliberately making herself prey, she is no hero.  And what is she going to do for her livelihood, steal rapists’ money?  Vigilantism is, of course, illegal (although several superhero teams get an official pass), but if she runs around stealing her victim’s money, she becomes more like a villain, and then her story reverts to the anti-woman myth from which it derives.  As several involved in the production say in the interviews, she is able to protect herself, but unless she has some sort of disease immunity, her power may be more trouble than it is worth, in addition to any emotional trauma it may cause.  Condoms certainly are going to be of no help to her.

I first encountered the myth of the vagina dentata in the Apache version as reported by Joseph Campbell.  In that story, only three women had vaginas at all, and they of course had teeth, and all the other vaginas in the world made up their dwelling.  The “hero” gives the women, “craving intercourse” in Campbell’s words, an elixir that destroys their teeth, after which he “show[s them] what vaginas are for,” then dismantles their house and supplies each woman with a vagina.  [The quotations are from memory.  I do not recall which book this is, but it is not The Power of Myth.]  In my unfinished, unauthorized Monster in My Pocket screenplay, by specializing on the monsters-as-characters, I turned myths such as those of Medusa (given multiple references by Lichtenstein, though never touching on her origin, which Ovid considered a deserved punishment for having been raped (or at least doesn’t create a counterargument for Perseus’s statement as such)), for example) on their heads, but here the message should be clear—it’s a myth that glorifies a man taking multiple female partners and justifies it by establishing the women as sexual predators.  Dawn’s research in the film reveals just how universal this legend is, and when she explains the myth to Ryan (Ashley Springer) as something that exists in all cultures, composer Robert Miller creates a mixture of multi-ethnic drum and wind instruments building on the score.

The film falls prey to its own hypocrisy early in the film, in which a diagram of how a penis becomes erect is considered perfectly acceptable by the school board for the high school health curriculum, but a diagram of the vulva (a word which the male teacher (Taylor Sheppard) can’t allow himself to say, but which Ryan correctly uses) is censored with a large gold sticker in all the students’ copies.  Ryan tears the page trying to remove it.  Ryan insists that showing a vulva is no different from showing a penis and questions the teacher for claiming otherwise.  The teacher is unable to answer.  Dawn claims that it is because women have a natural modesty, which results in jeers from students both male and female.  The film falls into this trap, because it shows penises but no vulvas, other than the diagram when Dawn removes the page from her book and soaks it in the sink to remove the censoring label.  Her face does not seem revolted at all at its appearance, though the very act of this censorship seems geared to make women ashamed and fearful of their bodies.  She is more concerned that hers is abnormal.  Granted, it must be acknowledged that no actor shows off his personal anatomy in the film, and we see only prosthetics.  Lichtenstein felt that it would be insulting to Weixler to show her anatomy on camera, and it must be admitted that a view of a prosthetic vagina dentata would probably be less than satisfactory.  Still, it reinforces the hubub created by Janet Jackson’s mere nipple in a live television broadcast, while a pre-recorded Survivor broadcast was allowed to show an uncensored penis without any fines from the FCC.  Most of the shots of the male anatomy could be achieved just as effectively with blood sprays and reaction shots, but presumably the graphic physical violence was necessary to sell the film to a horror crowd.  The fact that this could pass with an R-rating is indicative of the conservative factions in this country that run the MPAA.  I recall reading an interview in Video Watchdog in which the producer of a horror film in the 1970s noted that he was forced to put the naked men in his film in merkins (pubic wigs) so that their anatomy did not show.  The women’s natural pubic hair was considered sufficient.  Now merkins are very commonplace to depict female frontal nudity, because the MPAA seems to find the female genitalia NC-17 material, while the male genitalia merely R-rated.  I do not accept the claim that they are merely reinforcing the public’s standard in this way.

Dawn, it must be said, begins the film as an abstinence advocate of a group that, as best as can be said, is not so extreme as to insist that the first kiss be at the altar, as such groups do indeed exist, though (this group encourages dating and dancing, albeit at a distance and with mocking song lyrics by David Lichtenstein, another son of Roy), because of the indoctrination of the group, Dawn is horrified when she finds herself up in the middle of the night almost giving into temptation to touch herself in a fantasy of her wedding night.  Many more moderate abstinence groups, while not encouraging such behavior, would tell people not to have such guilt about it, as the closest the Bible comes to discussing it is Leviticus mentioning ritual uncleanliness after a sexual release of any nature, marital or not, so long as fantasies remain marriage-focused.  This group’s promise ring is a translucent red found by the costume designer, Rita Ryack.  Ryack says in the featurette that she is not impressed with the symbol as it appears on the T-shirts, but it does seem to be subtly symbolic of the female anatomy.  Dawn and others explicitly point out that this is not just for girls, so the organization is not overtly sexist, but the attitude is that the virginity is a gift that the giver must leave wrapped and unexamined before giving.

In an incident she apparently no longer remembers when asked, her stepbrother, who has never forgotten shows her his privates in a wading pool, and then demands to see hers, and gets bitten.   Her stepbrother, Brad (John Hensley) is obsessed with her, and responds by being a polar opposite, blasting thrash metal and constantly dealing with his physical needs with Melanie (Nicole Swahn), for whom he has no respect.  Interestingly, at a couple of points when Dawn enters Brad’s bedroom, one can clearly see a cobra image on Brad’s wall near the door.  Snakes have a long history as a symbol of feminine power that Freud more recently interpreted as a phallic symbol.  The double-edge of this symbol colors both scenes with subtext.  The snake imagery appeared earlier in the film as the children Dawn speaks to chant about Eve and the snake, directly tying the snake to femininity and indoctrinated fear of sexuality.  Nothing the children say is quoting the Bible, but is an extremely misogynistic interpretation of the Bible story.  This scene emphasizes Dawn’s exile from the group after she was date raped by one of its members, Tobey (Hale Appleman).  She never tells anyone of the rape, nor ever says the word, because her body responds by dismembering her attacker.  The attack occurs in a cave, with all the symbolism that entails, and either intentionally or because of the freezing water one must swim through to reach the cave contributing to shock, Tobey does not survive.  Dawn explicitly broke up with Tobey because of the sexual tension he was causing her.  In a deleted scene, another couple from the abstinence group, Gwen (Julia Garro) and Phil (Adam Wagner), unaware of the post-breakup meeting with Tobey to which Dawn agreed that ended in the date rape, state their belief that he killed himself over the breakup.  Knowing that the rape ties directly to his death, which, not even sure if it occurred or was a dream, she needs to return to the scene to confirm, she is forced to keep silent about it.  She also considers the rape reason to discard her promise ring.  Even when she acknowledges to the gynecologist (Josh Pais) that she is sexually active, and he tells her that the exam room is a safe place for secrets, she is unwilling to acknowledge the rape, and ultimately maims him in the funniest of the gore scenes.

Because her mother, Kim (Vivienne Benesch) is terminally ill and in pain (presumably with cancer, though that word is never uttered, either), Dawn really has no one to turn to, and is convinced that she has to go to the police.  After her breakup with Tobey, Ryan has become friendly with her, and she goes to him now.  He lives in his parents’ garage and has an intercom with which to call them.  Ryan reads books on female sexual pleasure and he has a box full of feminine massagers.  He is gentle with her, respectfully allows her to bathe in private, then seduces her, using his massagers on her until she is ready to let him in.   She has succumbed to the indoctrination of the other side that encourages casual sex.  She feels sexually liberated for a moment, and admires herself naked from the waist up in the mirror.  After she puts her shirt back on, he tempts her into having sex again by turning on his clitoral stimulator.  This time, she takes the supposedly more empowering on-top position, and she does not remove her shirt.  As she enjoys him, Ryan picks up his cell phone and starts taking to his friend.  He has won a bet.  He tries to put her on the phone.  She is thoroughly ashamed at the prospect of being out on the phone during intercourse, but shouts an instinctive “no.”  She continues intercourse with him as she argues about his violation of her sacred oath, then in an imagery laden line, he says that her mouth is saying one thing while her “sweet pussy” says another.  The most gruesome scene is reserved for the vilest offender (Tobey’s date rape was not premeditated), but she does not see it that way, ashamed of herself as she leaves him behind to call for his mom, who remains oblivious that it occurred during sex.

Dawn comes home calling for her mother, but finds her unconscious on the floor as Brad and Melanie have sex with the door open.  Dawn calls 911, but Kim does not survive.  The nurses allow Dawn to embrace Kim’s dead body.  Before Bill (Lenny van Dohlen), Dawn’s stepfather, can arrive at the hospital to sign the death certificate, Brad sics his vicious dog, Mother, upon his father, calling her off only after a serious bite to Bill’s neck.  Brad is conspicuously absent when Bill and a very guilt-ridden Melanie, whom Brad told Kim’s screams are normal, so Dawn goes home, dolls herself up, and seduces the stepbrother who has always wanted her, shoving off his attempts to get her from behind.  The angst in her face is quite palpable, disgusted at what she is allowing him to do, and her intent in mind, she seems to be wondering if she is indeed a monster.  In spite of what happened to his finger as a child, he is shocked when he cannot find his penis until it drops from under her nightgown.  She then releases Mother, her name tying in with a passage Dawn read regarding the mother element of the vagina dentata myth.  Mother consumes it all except the pierced glans, which she regurgitates.  Although Dawn allows Brad to live, she realizes that she can never return home, and bikes away, still in her nightgown and slippers and in heavy baby-doll makeup, only to hitch a ride with a dirty old man (Doyle Carter).

Dawn’s eyes flash knowingly in the final shot before the credits.  Is this Wicked, in which a slightly different person is shown turning to an evil monster as a matter of circumstance?  The film left me thinking about Dawn’s options, upon which I speculated earlier in this essay.  She can wander around running from law enforcement like the Hulk.  The filmmakers do not seem to see Dawn as a victim because she has this power, but what can she really do with it?  Perhaps she could go after known serial rapists and get any potential sentence against her commuted, though that seems limited to the slightly comicbook-like world she is in.  Without a diploma, she’s really in a worse state than David Banner in the television version of The Incredible Hulk, changing names and jobs repeatedly (though admittedly, that show could get pretty implausible to,  David earning things like pilot’s licenses under false surnames like the one Dawn used with the gynecologist, Cobb).  The prospect of meeting a kind man that treats her properly and give her no reason to “Bobbitt” as it were (she never does anything with the men’s testicles, so “castration” is not an appropriate term, and “penectomy” implies surgical precision), seems inherently anti-feminist, though it may well be Dawn’s dream.  While there is certainly a female empowerment aspect to vagina dentata, it doesn’t prevent rape, only punishes it, and in such a messy and disease-prone way that it’s not the protection the filmmakers seem to think that it is.  That the film stays with Dawn after all the maimings and focuses on her nonverbals as she copes with being raped, whereas most horror films would remain with the physically-injured party, Lichtenstein is, correctly, I believe, more concerned with Dawn’s psychological pain.

Although I find that the film is brilliantly achieved, I think there are things Lichtenstein and his crew really did not think about when they were making this film.  Are we really to believe than Dawn is simply going to reject the modest person she was?  As Cunégonde says in Voltaire’s Candide, “Though a person of honor may be raped once, her virtue is only strengthened by the experience.” (from Chapter 8, translated by Robert M. Adams).  Dawn’s conditioning does not allow her this perception.  She interprets it as meaning that she is now sexually active, but she is clearly not happy about it.  She was always more modest in how she dressed than Gwen, and in a deleted scene, reveals that she has trained herself to see only G-rated things, ignoring the sexual imagery in advertising and willing to see only G-rated movies.  Ryack says that this is because Gwen and Phil were raised in the program and Dawn was not, something that could have been made clearer in the film.  The fact that she is a relative newcomer to participating in the program and quickly shooting to the top as a speaker in spite of some obvious awkwardness (presumably at her age, no one expects her not to have this) and overemphasizes the ideals it embraces in order to fit in is certainly a part of her character that is not quite explained in the film.  If she is attracted to the program because of its ideals and is then swept up by its dogma, do people really drop those core ideals from their psyches after traumas such as Dawn’s?  I suspect that without the program, she would have been more readily willing to indulge her wedding night fantasy, and less convinced by her lack of virtue had she still been raped (by someone she, after all, met in the program and probably would not have become involved with otherwise), less easy to seduce, and less likely to become an “avenging angel” as one of the crew put it in the featurette.  Cunegonde’s belief does seem to indeed be buried in Dawn.  Tobey tells her he is pure “… in God’s eyes.”  In the context of the scene, I initially thought he had meant that someone had touched him inappropriately.  This scene made me believe that Dawn had forgotten the childhood incident that was so meaningful to Brad, or else she would have said that there was a time in which she had been touched inappropriately.  She seems to think that Tobey’s virtue is unharmed.  During the date rape, he says that he needs to do it because he “ha[s]n’t masturbated since March,” and this is clearly to what he was referring earlier.  At the end of the film, she seems to have discarded any notions of virtue and believe that her job is to harm those who would violate women, even though it of itself obligates her to be a victim.  This is definitely a feminist message, but as a female empowerment message, it is very weak.  It seems to be the sort of feminist message that gets the more moderately conservative riled up about feminism, even though conservatism generally does endorse revenge, at least when done by men.  This is reflected in the way the film’s advertising compares the film to Fatal Attraction and presents Dawn as someone who willfully harms men, although this is only what she becomes when she maims Brad.  She does not maim Ryan deliberately—her verbal and nonverbal cues indicate that it is an anger response that she immediately regrets.  The conservative advertisers of the film felt compelled to portray her as a nightmarish villain.  The big question that the film never brings up, though, is why, in a culture in which oral sex has become so popular and pervasive, would a vagina dentata even scare men anymore?  It’s very rare we hear of someone biting a rapist in a case of forced oral sex.  I recall hearing exactly one such story on the news that occurred on the IUPUI campus while I was still in high school.  Perhaps the filmmakers wanted women to use this strategy as often as it should be.

Ultimately, though, for all the film’s comicbook trappings, overt gags, and mutant powers, the human relationships are realistic, which makes me tend to think a more realistic after-film life for Dawn.  Her rape is an unpleasant wake-up call that may ultimately be defining a life full of rape in which she survives by deliberately making herself a target.  It would be perverse for her to enjoy this and hell for her not to.  The story may superficially involve female empowerment, but it is more about what was described in the featurette about women adapting to the world run by men, no matter whether it is for the better.  In this sense, Teeth is a feminist film, and a dire one.


From → art, feminism, Film, violence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: