Mitchell Lichtenstein writes and directs this quirky horror film which takes as it’s subject the most taboo of subject matters. Jess Weixler shines in her role as Dawn O’Keefe, a young woman with a very interesting physical abnormality. By the way, notice the “O’Keefe?” One look at Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of flowers should give the viewer a very sneaking suspicion about where this movie is going to go.
Across any number of cultures and time periods, from large civilizations like the Greeks to smaller tribal clans, there exists the myth of the vagina dentata. Yes, that is exactly what it sounds like – the idea of a vagina with teeth that has the capability of…ummm…unmanning one’s sexual partner. This story is often told to boys as they are reaching maturity – it functions as a means of further mystifying women, turning the female into the monstrous female, but also hints at an underlying, sometimes misogynistic, fear of women. When I bring this concept up to my World Literature students when we look at examples of the monstrous female, the reaction is always fun to witness. They know “vagina” and they assume that if “dentata” is related to dentist, then this is something twisted indeed. As a parallel to the stories of the vagina dentata, I’m reminded of a story which circulates amongst one of the aboriginal tribes of Australia. They segregate women from men during religious rituals, with the men having sole access to certain relics and aspects of these rituals. The men believe that their own male ancestors once stole the magic from the women and this is why the women must be separated and kept ignorant of the details of certain rites. Otherwise, they might become angry and reclaim their magic. So the men haven’t won so much as they hold a tenuous grasp on power. Clearly, the vagina dentata myth possesses elements of this uneasy power relationship between men and women, and it also brings to mind Freud’s theories on castration anxieties. Again, literature from around the world and across time tell stories of sexual intercourse leading to a man losing strength and vitality – the vagina dentata takes this one step further to include the possibility of castration.
On, at last, to the movie itself. Teethis quite subversive – it is a horror movie on one level, but it is a darkly funny social commentary on the other. Our main character Dawn has taken a purity pledge. Indeed, the viewer first meets Dawn as she speaks at a purity gathering (I can’t think of anyway else to describe it). She asserts that if virginity is a gift, one wouldn’t simply give a gift to just anyone, would they? There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, don’t get me wrong. The problem here is that Dawn has been made to be afraid of her body, to believe that she is somehow dirty and inherently fallen. She has only her fear of her body and sex, rather than any concrete understanding of why one might choose to be celibate or remain a virgin. She doesn’t even know what her vagina is supposed to look like – in one great scene, she has to soak a page of her biology book to remove the gold seal covering/censoring the drawings of the female reproductive system. It’s at this point that she begins to figure out that she’s a bit…different…than other women – she has the vagina dentata. The viewer keeps seeing establishing shots of a nuclear power plant’s smokestacks near Dawn’s home, so the implication is that radioactive poisoning might have led to her physiological uniqueness.
Dawn’s pledge of purity is broken by a young man that she quite likes. He is her knight in shining armor. Unfortunately, he’s much more of a frog and he attempts to rape her. Her vagina dentata extract their (it’s crazy when I had to decide if the dentata were singular or plural as an attacking unit) revenge and he is unmanned. These castration scenes are both gory and (I thought) hilarious. Yes, you do get the money shots – severed penises abound in this film. I won’t give away all the plot details, but needless to say, Dawn finally begins to understand her body and appreciate it’s unique possibilities for extracting revenge. I would say that she’s ultimately sympathetic – she has been victimized by men in numerous instances, men who try to use their physical power to dominate her sexually, and takes revenge in a way which puts a stop to that permanently.
I’ve seen Teeth described as a feminist horror film – perhaps so, but personally, I’m so leery of that term “feminist.” It’s been used and abused over the years. I will say that it is an interesting exploration of female identity generally and female sexual identity specifically. Ladies, I think you’ll enjoy this. The scene at the gynecologist’s office is worth it alone. Gentlemen, you might as well but I can see you cringing at some of the mayhem.