Monday, March 12, 2012

Retro Review: Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.


Teeth is a giddy mish-mash of genre monikers, from female empowerment movie to coming-of-age saga to black comedy-horror to rape and revenge drama to Lynchian suburban melodrama. Pop artist fil Mitchell Lichtenstein gives us the story of Dawn, a white picket fence pretty young girl coping with growing up "pure and virginal" in a world obsessed with sexual innuendo around each and every corner. This includes her own house as her lecherous big bad wolf epitome'd stepbrother sniffs after her with tongue a-flicking. After a date gone horribly, horribly awry, Dawn finds out that she is cursed with the mythical mutation known as "vaginal dentata" - aka she's got razor sharp teeth in her pussy, yo!  The result is that Teeth ends up being a quirky (how could it not be?), sunnily macabre work of neo-candy pop gyno-horror that can in no way whatsoever be watched by anyone of the male gender without constant squirming and shuffling about in what are suddenly very uncomfortable seats.

Opening in the suburban shadow of a nuclear power plant with towers billowing grey choke from their own gritty teeth, as if a nod-and-a-wink absurdist homage to The SimpsonsTeeth struts out with a creeping small town menace overlying everything, and proceeds down a road of desperate reciprocatory acts of the most bizarre nature.  With the perils of male violence festooned within every darting-eyed nook and cranny moment, Teeth takes place in a world completely ensconced within one of those old sex ed filmstrips made to keep junior high school girls legs clamped shut until their wedding night - and first-time director Lichtenstein tosses this all at us with the sincerest kind of camp style.

Dawn, played with a scared forest animal comic frenzy by Jess Weixler, looking every bit the girl next door on the verge of bad girl in the basement is spokesperson for a promise ring wearing teenage purity movement - a movement lampooned on Family Guy but given real "teeth" here. Dawn is seen as the ultimate sexual goal-cum-prize by just about every male classmate in her school, as if every teenage boy is some sort of licentious lycanthrope ready to pounce and deflower every pretty girl they come across at the drop of a hat - or any article of clothing. Dawn sees herself as such too and fights even her own naturally budding urges (a scene showing our intrepid heroine in bed "thinking" about a boy she longs for attests to such) to keep her vow of chastity upright. That is until one fateful swimmin' hole romp that ends with the lake being dredged for the body of Dawn's unfortunate date sans one pretty important body part.

Once the newly deflowered Dawn throws away the moniker of cursed hoo-hah and looks upon her mutation as a rightful empowerment to avenge her becoming the victim of the seemingly rampant male violence of this strange new world the film goes from anti-sexual to proto-sexual. With Dawn going from Little Red Riding Hood to the Big Bad Wold herself, the film here turns from strangely charming fantasy to something straight out of a seedy dogeared pulp fiction paperback. It is at this point that Teeth philosophically joins in with such rape & revenge films as Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 and its more recent counterpart The Brave One from Neil Jordan. Teeth though is a much less mature, more light-hearted film that the aforementioned. After all, horror-edged or not, Lichtenstein is going for laughs here. Leaving a hilarious slew of severed penii (as well as four fingers of a rather over-amorous gynecologist) in her wake, Dawn strews her victims "better halves" across the landscape like discarded cigarette butts in the early dusky morning after a concert in the park.

One scene, inevitably choreographed, involves Dawn's salacious step-brother (played with a grim concupiscence by snarky Nip/Tuck regular John Hensley), his pet rottweiler and his freshly decapitated member half eaten with its pierced tip discarded like so much gristle. Though obvious in its outcome, this scene is certainly the pièce de résistance of this giddily twisted fairy tale of female empowerment overtaking a male dominated society of sexual despotism. On a whole, Teeth is funny, though a little bit crotch-writhing for those of us so engendered. Lichtenstein's film is a delight of, albeit stereotyped caricatures, fumbling their way through a darkish suburban nightmarescape that combines the punchy humor of a youthful Almódovar with the clean efficiently disturbed Middle America of a budding David Lynch. This critic for one, looks forward to what will come next. 

[Originally published as a DVD review at Plume Noire on 02/04/09]


Dave Enkosky said...

Although I loved the concept, I felt the execution was lacking. But overall I did enjoy Teeth.

Kevyn Knox said...

Perhaps not the great thing it could have been under another director's yoke (can you imagine David Lynch doing this!!?) but certainly a fun and campy romp.