Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth is actually a delightful movie — to the extent that a horror film about the vagina dentata and castration can be delightful. It might be more accurate to say that it’s gruesome, campy, and affecting in more or less equal measure — though the affectingness ultimately wins out, I think. Although it was made in 2007, and is set in the present, Teeth has a real 1980s-horror feel to it — which is a good thing, since the 80s were the great decade for horror films with smart socio-politico-sexual subtexts. Indeed, a horror-comedy about the vagina dentata is such a rich and clever idea that it’s surprising nobody has ever done it before. Sure, there are lots of misogynistic movies where women are (metaphorically, and sometimes literally) castrating bitches from hell, or where alien monsters are devouring vaginas; and in the 1980s in particular there was the rape/revenge subgenre (most notable example: I Spit On Your Grave) in which a sometimes literal castration was the punishment meted out to the scumbag rapists. (Carol Clover wrote the book on those movies). But Teeth is rather different, both because the vagina dentata is literalized as the point of the “horror,” and because of the way the film focuses on the ambivalent feelings of the female protagonist who does not realize what she has within her. Conceptually, Teeth is body horror on a level with early Cronenberg (think especially of The Brood), but affectively it eschews Cronenberg’s extremity and anguish in favor of something much gentler and lighter (and I do not mean these words as veiled criticisms). (Mitchell Lichtenstein is the son of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, and he contrasts to Cronenberg much in the way that his father contrasts to, say, Jackson Pollock).
[WARNING: WHAT FOLLOWS CONTAINS SPOILERS]
Teeth centers on the figure of Dawn (brilliantly played by Jess Weixler, who is actually in her 20s but manages to convey the look and feel of a teenager, and the affective confusions and ambivalences that people of such an age are prone to), a young high-school-age woman made anxious by her burgeoning sexuality. She is unable to manage the rush of feelings and desires that seem to take possession of her. In addition, at home she has to deal with the fact that her mother is dying, as well as with her obnoxious stepbrother, who apparently has the hots for her, and who is always playing loud heavy metal music while he abuses his girlfriend and trains his killer Rottweiler. Not to mention that the family house is virtually next door to a power plant continually spewing noxious fumes.
Initially, Dawn is an enthusiastic member, and indeed organizer, of the teenage “abstinence” movement; she addresses pep rallies in which (mostly white) clean-cut teems take vows of chastity until marriage. To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t take any cheap shots at this; it rather views it as a symptom, both of Dawn’s confusion at her own surging hormones, and at our society’s overall difficulties with sexual expression. (If anything, the Christians, although creepy, don’t come off in the film as badly as the heavy-metal stepbrother does). Anyway, Dawn feels a mutual attraction with a boy who is also an enthusiastic abstinence-pledger. As their relationship develops, they continually both arouse each other and hold each other back; it’s like trying to see how close to the edge they can get without actually having sex. (Not that either of them thinks of it this way; they are both confused, scared, and experimenting, and the actors are totally convincing as they convey the characters’ inchoate desires, fears, and fumbling confusions). Finally (and inevitably) they get too caught up in the moment; the boy goes too far, Dawn objects, but not strongly and convincingly enough, and… she loses her virginity and he loses his cock.
This scene is brilliant because of the way it shows the teens’ mixed emotions as they are caught up in the moment; also because of the way it shows how the conventional and stereotypical, unequal gender relations come into play — the boy is the one who insists, the girl is the one who first challenges and allures, and then holds back — without them being specifically rooted in the psychology of these particular characters: the gender roles are typologies that they can’t resist, but yet things that aren’t specifically theirs; they conform to them not just unthinkingly, but even unpsychologically, because they are simply the only roles or categories they know. In this sense, the film conveys a powerful feminist sense of how gender coding is not a personal or moral stance, but rather a socially produced, and socially diffused, framework within which we act and understand without even being aware that we are doing so.
Anyway, one of the great things about Teeth is that it views the effects of the vagina dentata’s actions, that is to say the castrations, entirely from Dawn’s point of view, rather than from that of the “victims.” After the first incident, she is baffled and upset; she doesn’t understand why this has happened, which means that she doesn’t really understand her own emotions. She is in control neither of her own pleasures, nor of her own sense of violation. She goes to ses a rather smarmy male gynecologist, who is no help with either psychology or physiology; she is creeped out by his bedside manner, and he loses his fingers (rather than his genital organ) to the vagina dentata. Gradually Dawn realizes, at least, that the chastity movement is no longer adequate to her own sense of sexual awakening. She willingly has sex with a (seemingly) much nicer boy, who at least goes out of his way to properly seduce her. She has an orgasm, feels refreshed, and the vagina dentata doesn’t manifest itself… at least until she learns that the boy had made a wager with another dude that he would be able to bed her.
As the film progresses, the mutilations of men that result from Dawn’s vagina dentata are increasingly played for comedy. This is the campy part of the film, but it is also the most affecting part. Dawn starts coming to terms with her body and with her turbulent emotions; as she does so, she learns to accept the vagina dentata as part of her, and to use it knowingly, as a weapon. The day of reckoning arrives for the obnoxious, sexist stepbrother, in the film’s most deliriously gruesome and campy scene. By the end of the movie, Dawn has left the family (dead mother, pathetic and ineffective stepfather, odious stepbrother) behind, and gone on the road as a hitchhiker — but one who has the self-awareness, and the means of protection, to fend for herself.
Teeth is reminiscent of 1980s horror both in its ambivalently open ending, and in various other features. For instance, all those 80s films have a masculine would-be rescuing figure, who initally seems bound to defeat the monster and save the woman, thus reaffirming patriarchy at the same time as curbing its hyperbolic abuses. Yet, of course, in every one of those films, the male savior figure turns out to be a dud — he is killed by the monster, and is thus unable to save and protect the girl or woman, who must finally take matters into her own hands and kill the patriarchal monster herself. Teeth is, of course, a bit different, since the “monster” is not a patriarchal force threatening the female protagonist, but rather an aspect of herself. But in the course of the narrative, Dawn researches “vagina dentata” on the Internet, and learns of its mythic resonances and how, in the myth, a male hero is supposed to conquer it, thus restoring the woman to her proper (subordinated) place in the “natural” (i.e. patriarchal) order. For a while, she yearns to find such a hero, who (she hopes) will save her from herself. But part of what she learns in the course of the film is that this hero does not exist, and would not provide a desirable resolution if he did.
What’s great about Teeth, finally, is how cogent and affectively convincing it is, as a narrative of a girl’s passage through puberty; and the way that, in the course of this narrative, it embodies and literalizes Dawn’s affective experience, while at the same time insisting upon the social or more-than-psychological aspects of these affects, and of their embodiment. It’s not a narrative of liberation, exactly, since at the end of the film Dawn still finds herself in a patriarchal world where her options as a teenage girl are limited, and where she is still forced to put on the masquerade of femininity in order to do anything or get anywhere. In this sense, the vagina dentata is still a symptom of female dependency and unliberation. In a non-gender-biased world, one more open and tender to the multifarious metamorphoses of sexual desire, it wouldn’t be necessary. But, reactive as it is, the vagina dentata offers Dawn the only sort of freedom that is accessible to her.
All that, and also just the general sense that it is about fucking time somebody made a movie in which the lopping off of a penis is played for laughs.