Lettin' It Sink In: Teeth (2007)

Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

Having spent a couple of posts recently squirming in anguish over the lost or squandered opportunities of others (the Undead or Alive posts -- here and here -- and the bit on Severance), it hit me suddenly that perhaps I haven't explained precisely why I get so anguished over such things. In the Severance piece I hinted at the feeling that overtakes me within a viewing of a particularly interesting film where I know I will be visiting that flick again sometime in the future, perhaps even dozens of times. But, for me, there is a level above and beyond even that one...

I am, like so many others, what is described as a movie nut. Honestly, I am probably more of a movie fetishist, but let’s not get into semantics. A fetishist is a nut in most people’s eyes, and most likely some form of addict, so let’s leave it at that. The first step is admitting you have, well, not a problem… I prefer to call it deep focus. (It just so happens that is a movie term, too… see how neat and tidy this all is? At least, in my mind...)

There is a feeling that for me is better than any high offered by any form of illicit narcotic or pharmaceutical. It is a feeling that only pops up for me, at most, a handful of times a year, but usually even less so. If I am lucky, once or twice annually. To someone so focused on movies, this is almost a mental orgasm, and often better than a real one, which in truth, is pretty damn fleeting and often less emotionally connected. But this feeling can stick with you for life, and every time you return for an encounter with the source of its power, you can actually build on that initial moment of discovery. The movies which contain the rough elements of this feeling can be a varied lot. Certifiably classic films can bring about this "cine-gasm" in me, and they only get better and better over time and unending viewings, where most, more generic films would only bring about an overdose of familiarity and quick boredom.

But equally as often I gain this feeling from films most people, except those happily indoctrinated, would consider "low" films. It's there in Raimi's Evil Dead series and it's there in Romero's first two zombie flicks (but none of the rest). Most of Cronenberg's and Lynch's early work does this for me, so inventive and daring were they, even while fulfilling the drive of the respective philosophies of those two distinctive filmmakers. This in no way means that something like Scanners is on the same level film-wise as a Citizen Kane -- just to mention two films that perfectly embody the thrill of which I am speaking -- but I revisit them each almost equally as often. It's not about outright quality sometimes, but pure coolness. And it is a deeply personal sense too, unique to each individual that chooses to recognize the sensation. The feeling is so personal, that to me to watch any of the first seven Marx Brothers films is to experience waves of pleasure within my brain that a lifetime of continual service from the most practiced and beautiful of Thai hookers couldn't bring about physically in me (not that I am not fully willing to give this theory a thorough, scientifically grounded testing...)

Strangely enough, and much to my complete surprise, midway through Teeth, an invigorating feminist horror film that tosses about severed penises like so much confetti, I realized this most elusive feeling. Where once I would have expected to wince in shocked agreement with my assumed brotherhood that is the male population that perhaps, for once, now that the tables have turned on us, that this low-budget gore film has gone too, too far, instead I found nirvana. And, more than ever, I knew definitely that there was no such thing as a brotherhood to which I belonged. I split from the fraternity of "guys" long ago. Bunch of mama-missin', homophobic, beer-swillin', peer-pressurized rapists. Sure, I can be a base perv as much as any male, but most of the time, when I choose to act that way, the portrayal is meant to be ironic. (It's like when my bro Shane yells "Foo'ball!" to mock jock-heads.) And my own perversity is mainly limited to my own battered psyche, where anything goes and nothing is judged. Part of this self-imposed limitation can definitely be attributed to the siphoning off of certain energies via my ability to focus them out through enjoyment in other arenas. Such as when a movie strikes that perfect note for me...

Midway through Teeth, Dawn O'Keefe -- whose character fulfills both the classic heroine role and that of the supposed "monster" in a traditionally developed horror movie -- goes to see a gynecologist named Dr. Godfrey. The reason? The discovery that she, indeed, has something inside her vagina that has left her once would-be boyfriend-turned-rapist minus his penis and perhaps dead. The shy teenager, once the most erstwhile of bible-beating "promise keeper"-type abstinence touters, couldn't resist her normal urges to the point where sex may have, literally, killed. Confused, she heads to the doctor, who happens to be a male, though the question remains open (at least, to me it does) whether his position still gives him such power over his female subjects that he is actually taking advantage of Dawn, albeit in a seemingly clinical fashion. Regardless of unspoken intent, and with a world-weary air about him, the doctor's examination of Dawn finds his hand searching about inside her. And then, to his complete surprise, he does find something. Or, really, it was lying in wait for him, like the stealthiest of predators.

It grabs onto him, and he screams and struggles to pull his hand out of Dawn. Her legs kick as he pulls harder and harder, but he cannot escape. They struggle far past the point that a normal director would allow such a scene to linger, and as the doctor's fight for release surges on -- 20, 30 seconds? It just seemed like it went on forever -- the scene actually shoots beyond being a mere shock sequence to one that is jaw-droppingly hilarious, if not more than a little sick (in the manner that Lenny Bruce used to be described as a "sick" comic). You may have heard the theatrical term "hold for laughter" (also applicable to applause), where a performer pauses slightly in their shtick to allow the audience to show their appreciation. This is almost what it seems director Mitchell Lichtenstein is doing for this scene. Holding for laughter, which I emitted like I was the one playing The Joker in the latest Batman flick.

Dawn kicks and kicks, the doctor yanks harder -- and finally, his hand is released! Minus four fingers, though... but instead of flailing about the office and screaming for help or the police, Dr. Godfrey assumes the role of a mad scientist who has discovered something amazing. He yells "It's true! Vagina dentata! Vagina dentata! Vagina dentata!" as if he and his cohorts in the gynecological trade whispered the very notion of shark-like teeth within the female anatomy secretly amongst themselves like an ancient, laughed-away conspiracy theory. The stumps of his fingers spewing blood, the doctor maintains his composure just enough to realize he has stumbled upon the gynecological equivalent of the alchemical formula. Soon, Dawn's monstrous hidden self expels the doctor's fingers, and she flees the office. And so ends a simply amazing scene.

What didn't end for me then was the very feeling of which I spoke previously. With just this scene, while I had been slightly impatient earlier in the film waiting for it to rev up fully, I knew that Teeth was going to be a keeper, no matter what happened afterward. As it turns out, unlike many horror films which peter out (I was trying to avoid such sordid puns as much as possible here, given the subject matter, so, sorry...) once the monster is identified and explained, this one gets more powerful at the same time that Dawn does, and more interesting as she discovers how to use what she once thought of as an affliction as both a weapon of revenge and as an instrument of mental and physical growth. Trapped in a world of men who only see her as a prize to be used sexually and then discarded with a laugh and a sneer, Dawn is slowly becoming what men fear most in the darkest corners of their minds. It's Girl Power writ large and snarling.

I'm not going to go so far as to stupidly suggest that Jess Weixler, the actress that brings Dawn to life so vividly and so variedly through each stage of her development in the film, deserved an Oscar nomination. (She won a Special Jury Prize for her acting at Sundance last year.) Such statements betray a basic lack of understanding of how the Oscars work. But if there was a harder role through which someone was led in 2007, I would be hard-pressed to believe it compared against Weixler's truly complex performance in Teeth. Cringingly annoying at first in her goody-two-shoes phase, she is soon blushing and innocent in the throes of first love (however deceived), then she is frightened following the rise of her power, then confused by the implications of such power, and then she has to climb several rungs up the ladder towards Dawn's growing self-confidence and liberation. Show me somebody else who had to convey so much in one 90-minute plus movie in recent history. And then show me that somebody who does it as spot-on as Weixler does here.

Despite the gore -- heavy on the blood-gushing from the lower portions of the male anatomy, and featuring a hilarious if not disgusting bit (again, no pun intended) involving a Rottweiler -- it's actually rather non-exploitative in the usual horror film sense (unless you are one of those that consider all nudity to be exploitative. If you do, I feel sorry for you...) There is so much that Lichtenstein could have shown considering the subject matter, and if you think he held back in order to get the "R" rating, I will say that the biggest shock for me concerning the film is the rating. I have seen far less graphic or harsh portrayals of sexual frankness garner an X or NC-17. It wasn't until I finished the film -- thinking the DVD was unrated -- that I noticed the "R." So, now I am wondering if the director didn't hold back, and just got lucky. Or slept with Jack Valenti before he croaked, and had lurid pictures blackmailing the former head of the MPAA. Whatever the circumstances, I was shocked at the rating, but it also explained why there wasn't an actual shot of her teeth-laden vagina. No close-ups of teeth gnashing though male appendages or fingers. Just the sublimity that decent acting and directorial wit can bring to a horror movie when properly applied. He doesn't have to show it -- we believe it happened.

The movie, like most horror movies tend to do, could be setting the stage for an eventual sequel, but I hope not. The film closes like a good short story or Twilight Zone episode -- with a clever shot that hints at things to come for Dawn, as well as for the "monster" that normal society, especially men, would consider her to have become. Like the stuff Lichtenstein could have put on screen, they don't have to show it. Teeth works as it is. And the feeling that I found miraculously in Teeth would also go away with a sequel. Any follow-ups would betray a false set. You can eat with dentures, but food wouldn't be the same.

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