Many of the industry's most successful filmmakers cut their teeth on obscure, low-budget horror films. Robert Wise began by directing Boris Karloff in The Body Snatcher, and ended up winning Oscars for West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Francis Ford Coppola first came to the attention of big studios after the success of Dementia 13, and the rest is filmmaking history. Even James Cameron, who doesn't know the meaning of 'low budget', started out with Roger Corman on Piranha II.
It's hard to know if Mitchell Lichtenstein's career will follow the same kind of path. Although Teeth is an impressive and memorable debut, it is not quite as accomplished or satirically on-the-money as many have claimed. It has several prominent flaws which are fortunately balanced by its high level of squirm-inducing scares and genuinely creepy moments, which add up to an interesting calling card for its director.
Although Teeth is nominally a horror comedy, its close counterpart is neither the gross-out splatter of The Evil Dead or the homage-ridden antics of John Landis. There is a touch of homage in the film's references to 1950s B-movies. A couple of old black-and-white horror films are seen briefly on the mother's TV, and the location of Dawn's house near two giant nuclear cooling towers is a nod to all those old films about radiation causing mutation. But neither of these are substantially developed; certainly the latter is never used directly as an explanation for Dawn's... 'adaptation'.
The closest companion to Teeth is Hard Candy, since both are twisted feminist tales about teenage women with dark secrets. Both are also divisive along gender lines; in the case of Teeth, men will struggle to laugh as opposed to shudder in fear during scenes which are near the bone(r). Some of the more brutal and gory scenes feature realistic prosthetics and old-fashioned theatrical blood, making the acts of mutilation feel far more physical and frightening than any kind of CGI torture porn.
The film is a satire of the American celibacy movement, embodied here by a group called 'The Promise' for which our lead character is a vocal spokesperson. It starts very strongly with Dawn giving one of her talks to an assembly of young students, all of whom give shouted responses which sound very tightly choreographed. You feel like you're witness to some kind of brainwashing exercise, with Dawn as its poster child. Jess Weixler gives a fine performance which captures that familiar look of blinkered determination, that preachy but ultimately shallow conviction that she is right.
But the manipulation of truth, by the state or by religious organisations like The Promise, doesn't end with the assembly hall. In a biology class later on in the film, diagrams of the female genitalia have been covered by stickers by state law; and later on there is a brief debate about the evolution of the rattlesnake (no innuendo intended).
But while the film is clear about precisely who and what it is attacking -- and for all the right reasons -- there is a sense that it could have been more savage still. Although it sets up the level to which kids are indoctrinated with anti-sex propaganda, there is little focus on how this indoctrination affects Dawn after her initial 'accident' with Tobey. Her torment is taken for granted, when what we want is for the film to go deeper.
The film's examination of dentata (the 'teeth' of the title) allows for a multi-layered examination into feminism and sexual liberation. The female genitalia has traditionally been portrayed in Western societies as something innately passive and unthreatening. To give this organ teeth and make its owner an attractive teenager, wrestling with budding sexual urges, is a powerful combination because it almost completely reverses this stereotype and exposes the inherent weaknesses of the male. The film has a brilliantly creepy tone; even before the first castration you sense that something really bad is going to happen, so that when it does, it's all the more chilling and alarming.
Depending upon which school of feminism one is partial to, this transformation is either a sign of women triumphing over men, or a cautionary tale about the need to treat women equally. The film begins with the latter and gradually tiptoes into the former. At first Dawn is simply horrified by what has happened; in both the cave and at the gynaecologist's office, the attacks happen out of panic and she has no control over her new set of jaws. By the time she has managed intercourse without mishap, she seems to have undergone a moral shift and become more vengeful towards men.
This transformation is one of the central problems with Teeth: it cannot decide whether it is pro-women or simply anti-men, and Lichtenstein often confuses the two via comedy. The first time Dawn's teeth come into play, it really freaks you out, even with the old-fashioned, over-the-top screaming. But by the third time, the film is playing it deliberately for gross-out laughs, which seems less honest or compelling. The moment where the dog eats Dawn's brother's member will both makes you squirm and try your patience. The film eventually ends up as a bizarre hybrid of Fatal Attraction and Baise-Moi, more concerned with painting Dawn as some kind of avenging angel than making a more interesting point about controlling sexual desire.
The performances in Teeth are largely unremarkable aside from Weixler, who really nails her character early on and plays her with both a childlike naivety and knowledge beyond her years. Lichtenstein's direction is interesting and fairly accomplished, and he generally resists the temptation to exploit his young lead for the sake of bringing in the American Pie crowd. There are a number of gratuitous sexual scenes, like the male nudity in the locker room or Dawn's brother shagging while his adoptive mother lies unconscious on the floor. But these are compensated overall by a sensitivity towards Weixler; aside from one topless scene, she is suitably clothed for most of the film, and her fantasy sequence is cut short at an appropriate stage, both for the film's subject and its internal credibility.
Overall Teeth is an interesting and creepy calling card for its young director and star. It isn't a completely seamless project, and in the final third it does become hazy about its true symbolic intentions. But if nothing else it should be praised for its sense of humour and its desire to tackle interesting and difficult subject matter. At a time when mainstream horror is looking back to the old slasher conventions, with its scantily clad and dim-witted female characters, Teeth offers a refreshing antidote in the shape of a female lead with conviction who uses her beauty for more powerful if disagreeable ends. It's not a masterpiece, and isn't as well-made as Hard Candy, but it's an enjoyable chiller which hints at future promise.