Gnawing Fear

Confused Horror Film 'Teeth' Tells But Doesn't Show in Update of Classic Vagina Dentata Myth

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Mitchell Lichtenstein's debut feature "Teeth" is just as high-concept as "Cloverfield," but where the big urban monster movie is an effective, pointed picture (that derails, slightly, late), the little suburban monster movie is a confused and wasted opportunity. Instead of a rampaging beast, here we have the vagina dentata myth literalized between the legs of Dawn (a fetching and committed Jess Weixler). For the first half of the film Dawn is a chastity poster child, saving her purity for marriage. Then she succumbs to desire a bit and the male members start falling in half. Great setup, right? Well, it doesn't quite deliver on that promise.

If John Waters had made "Teeth," the film might have been the camp classic it wants to be, but fails to become, in large part because Waters would have sustained and focused, perhaps even amplified, the camp aspects that Lichtenstein nails but more often neglects. Not that a rape scene should be funny-good grief, no-but the horrific halving of a rapist's dick by Dawn's titular teeth shoots for true horror with Dawn's (subjective point of view) final note of solitary resignation after the almost-campy reaction shots during the take-that dick-chewing. The score tells us to laugh at the rapist's fate, but the angles and lighting are plug-and-play horror movie thrill tactics. It can't shake its imbalance, its desire to terrify as much as to amuse. That it does both is laudable; that it never shifts well between them is unfortunate.

Despite the intrigue of the title (what's a toothed vagina look like?), the film shows a lot of cock (bleeding, cut-in-half, flaccid, prosthetic), and nowhere, not even in a textbook, do we see a vagina (toothed or not). While this might satisfy a psychoanalytic understanding of cinema (gendered castration anxiety) that liberal arts courses sometimes preach at universities (yup, I get it: vagina eating dick equals no more phallus), this premise is only the start of the argument: "Teeth" remains a horror movie built on a phallocentric logic, on climaxes. If anything, Waters would have had the, uh, moxie to give us-censors be damned-a good look at Dawn's monster chompers, even if he stayed true to his understanding of three-act storytelling. Embracing the trash of the story would only improve the film. Waters' hypothetical version would probably be funnier, dirtier, uglier.

"Teeth" works best, as would follow, when funny and dirty, but it is certainly handsome (save Dawn's predatory step brother, who looks like Sid from "Toy Story") and ultimately safe, muddled, unusually loud: a square Venn-diagram tracking little overlap. A comedy on the surface (tongue-in-cheek musical cues and edits, pun-heavy dialogue), Lichtenstein's film also inherits a core fear of, and interest in, the horror of the body found in David Cronenberg's oeuvre. But, of course, to compare "Teeth" to "Rabid" or "Shivers" or "Videodrome" is probably as unfair as comparing Lichtenstein to Waters. The problem with "Teeth" isn't quite that it fails to live up to its predecessors; rather, the problem lies in the film's two-faced proposition. Is it a sex comedy or a sex-is-horror flick? Or is it yet another suburbia breeds hidden evils? It certainly cannot blend all its aspirations very well. Such busy milkshakes are hard to mix well. A lot of intriguing ingredients does not always equal rich, tasty food.

The audacious Lichtenstein has his ratios, his portions and his driving artistic focus all off: small when big would work, big when small is required, always cleaner than necessary (even when it comes to a speech about chastity).

Keep your pants on with Ryland at [email protected]

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