Mitchell Lichtenstein’s debut feature Teeth, about a high school student who discovers she has a toothed vagina, reminded me of the first time I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail as a teenager, particularly the scene in which the knight gets all of his limbs swiped off with a sword, blood spurting everywhere, the ground strewn with body parts. For weeks afterwards all it took was for a sadistic friend of mine to whisper, “It’s only a flesh wound,” and I’d be doubled over my desk in Spanish class, gasping for air. “Que es tu problema?” the teacher would ask, but I couldn’t answer in any language. Why the mere thought of severed limbs and fountains of blood flying across the screen could have me in stitches was beyond my capacity to explain. Of course, knowing I was exhibiting inappropriate behavior made me uncomfortable—but it did nothing to stop the giggles. Appropriately or not, the scenes in Teeth in which the heroine, Dawn (Jess Weixler, who has a young Laura Linney’s looks and acting chops) uses her “power” to exact revenge are as campy and funny as anything in Python’s Grail—or John Waters’ Female Trouble. Substitute dildos for prosthetic arms and legs and you get the picture.
Unfortunately, this is also precisely the problem with Teeth: the very idea of the movie is tastelessly funny, and while the director is willing to drive through midnight movie country, he doesn’t want to live there. Castration anxiety aside, it’s simply not politically correct to have the first, critical laugh-till-you-cry scene in a film occur during a rape. This is the crux of Lichtenstein’s dilemma, something’s he’s acutely aware of. In an interview included in the movie’s press notes, Lichtenstein calls the vagina dentata myth “a tricky subject that can too easily be misconstrued as misogynist or sexist.” To head off such accusations, Lichtenstein has imbued Teeth with what can only be described as misplaced gravitas.
For Dawn is not just a girl with a penis-eating pussy. She’s the virginal (natch!) spokeswoman for the local chastity group. She lives in a Tim Burton-esque suburbia with nuclear plant cooling towers looming ominously nearby and has a crush on a school hunk with Edward Scissorhands hair. She takes science classes in which big gold stars mask the textbook illustrations of vaginas (the better to prevent “violation of a woman’s natural modesty”) and walks in late on a lecture about diamondback snakes sprouting defensive rattles, paralleling her own unique “adaptation.” She even has an evil, pierced-and-tattooed, metal-head stepbrother who can’t wait to violate her. So what does all this abstinence education, teen sexuality, environmental poisoning, the teaching of evolution, male domination/fear of women paradox, add up to? Broadly drawn, bordering-on-caricature characters; diluted dialogue; muddled motivations: a heavy-handed mess in any language.
But if you can get through the academic tediousness of the director’s illustrated Camille Paglia lecture (Lichtenstein first heard of the vagina dentata myth in Paglia’s literature class), gory hilarity is your reward. In fact, what’s most disappointing about Teeth is its identity crisis. Lichtenstein can’t decide whether his film is an early Waters flick, a sci-fi fest or a satirical after-school special (and a satire of a myth is damn hard to pull off). If Lichtenstein hadn’t been so worried about charges of misogyny, he might have felt emboldened to push the black comedic aspects of his material even further than he already has, going beyond shock and into campy bliss. From the sterile, John Hughes High School halls to the Blue Lagoon-style set in which Dawn and her crush swim to the horror-movie sound effects that accompany the vagina attacks to the hip-hop soundtrack that kicks in during Dawn’s first loving deflowering (“Urban music! That’s so we know she’s a ’ho!”, my friend exclaimed), Lichtenstein’s instincts are as sharp as the tooth referred to in the line, “We found this embedded in the penile stump.” Which is almost as brilliant as Dawn’s post-orgasmic declaration, “I can’t believe you’re still alive.” Or Dawn’s reply to a lover who asks, mid-coitus, if she wants him to stop: “No…But the teeth will get you.” With lines like these, it’s a shame Teeth only ends up biting itself. It’s a could-have-been camp classic, the tragic victim of an inability to revel in its own sense of humor.