Monday, 8 December 2008

Teeth

2007
Dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein

The idea of ‘vagina dentata’ exists in many cultures and world mythologies and is generally thought to be a ‘cautionary’ tale for young men warning of the dangerous of pre-marital sex (who thinks up this stuff?!).

Anyhoo...

Various horror and rape-revenge films such as I Spit on your Grave, Last House on the Left and Ms 45 have featured avenging women ‘castrators’ who defiantly made a stand against aggressive masculinity. It is an idea that has been explored metaphorically in the horror genre to convey female empowerment and stuff. Never before though has a film taken this notion as its raison d’ĂȘtre. And to do so in such pitch black and witty humour simply adds to the ‘thrill’ of watching Teeth. Set to do for vaginas what Jaws did for the ocean (well, maybe not), this edgy cautionary tale will ensure you think twice before dipping your toe (or anything else for that matter) into the murky realms of sexual intercourse. Male audiences may find themselves crossing their legs in a few scenes.

Dawn O’Keefe is a young woman who like many other girls in Bible-belt America have pledged an allegiance to God to keep themselves pure until marriage, abstaining from the usual things associated with hormonally charged teens. Its in this context that the film has its edge, taking satirical jabs at the apparent absurdity of young people repressing what comes naturally and in the institutions such as the Christian right's chastity-abstinence cult following.

Other scenes of social satire include a cringe-worthy discussion in a biology class about female anatomy and while the pupils themselves have no problems using the ‘v’ word (no, not vampire, the OTHER ‘v’ word) the teacher is most uncomfortable. The fact that the image of female genitalia in the text book is covered up, a practice that is actually carried out in some schools in the States, adds to the already high dosage of sly and slick humour in the film. With all this mystery and controversy and the reluctance of the establishment to be direct about vaginas, it is no wonder Dawn’s confusion reaches frenzied proportions. She doesn’t know if she is normal or some kind of mutant, with no one to turn to she, like many teenagers, decides to face her problem and burgeoning sexuality alone and in total confusion.
Brief discussions of evolution for survival throw up contemporary anxieties such as the forced female circumcision that is evident in some cultures. The idea that female genitalia is evolving into something deadly, hangs heavy with Cronenbergian notions of body-horror and the bodily defence mechanisms inherent in the animal kingdom.


The film is peppered with obvious and very blatant phallic and vaginal imagery: the opening pan shot of sweeping green fields and idyllic blue skies giving way to two huge nuclear power plant cooling towers, blotting the landscape and seeming so out of place: rather like Dawn’s toothy problem; something that shows up somehow and just isn’t meant to be there. The combination of comedy and gross-out horror keeps events feeling lighter than they could have been given the dark and unsavoury subject matter. The down-right nasty chain of events that confront Dawn could have plunged the film into more controversial territory were it not for Lichtenstein’s deft direction and sly wit.

Dawn seems to be surrounded by examples of aggressive masculinity, in fact aside from her bumbling and rather inadequate step-father, every guy she knows or comes in contact with is a monster with one thing on his mind. Sure it furthers the plot and is quite essential for a film dealing with this particular subject matter, but as representations of ‘maleness’ in film go this is a pretty nasty bunch: the seemingly saccharine courter turned rapist; the mentally unstable and possibly incest-baiting step-brother; the creepy gynaecologist who administers brutal inspections and the rather charming fellow who spikes Dawn’s drink and then rapes her for a bet.


With each of these encounters though we know exactly what’s coming and Lichtenstein manages to build up a fair degree of tension and nervous humour. Perhaps it is because of these loathsome and grotesque exaggerations of maleness on show that we side with Dawn. Jess Weixler really holds things together, her portrayal of Dawn is sincere and sweet and she plays the abstinence role-model with straight conviction. Playing such an absurd character (a girl who has a set of incisors in her trinket) may have had lesser actresses opting for a more OTT performance, but Weixler’s sensitive portrayal easily holds our attention and generates sympathy. We share with her the abject horror she feels with her own body.

It’s no secret that teens have a tough time of it but this is bordering on the absurd. Not since Ginger Snaps has burgeoning female sexuality been shown in such volatile and darkly dangerous light. The coy finale showcasing Dawn’s acceptance of her ‘gift’ may spread a sly grin across your face as it becomes obvious she has become emboldened by her sexual ‘advantage’, no longer feeling like the victim she could have become. A coldly logical conclusion to an interesting cult oddity that has a distinct bite.

Trivia: Mitchell Lichtenstein is the son of pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein.

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