by Jon Mendelsohn
Coming-of-age years and the pain of puberty can be very difficult for most teenagers. It’s a time of questions, strange experiences, and overall confusion. But no one’s coming-of-age experience is quite as confusing as Dawn O’Keefe’s, the heroine of the 2007 cult horror-comedy film, Teeth.
Teeth is a funny and disturbing movie that shocked audiences and probably scared some teens out of having sex for good. But that’s not what writer and director Mitchell Lichtenstein is going for. Instead of being a cautionary tale for not having sex, Teeth is an exploration of female sexuality as well as a harrowing tale of revenge.
In Teeth, high schooler Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Weixler) seemingly has it all together. She’s a loving daughter, has great friends, and is a member of a Christian abstinence organization called “The Promise.” One day she meets Toby (Hale Appleman), another member of the group who is only a virgin in the eyes of the Lord, due to a mistake he made a year and a half ago. Dawn and Toby have obvious chemistry but because of “The Promise,” the two are afraid to pursue a relationship. However, after meeting for a swim at a swimming hole, Toby turns out to not be the gentleman he seemed and assaults Dawn. This is when Dawn finds out that she has an ancient curse between her legs: Vagina Dentata, also known as a toothed vagina. At first, this seems like a nightmare for her, but, as the film progresses, Dawn starts to realize that the abnormality may prove to be a blessing as much as it is a curse.
My favorite thing about this film is that instead of just going for shock value, which it still occasionally does, it actually has something to say about female empowerment and taking control of one’s own sexuality. Throughout the film, men constantly try to take advantage of Dawn, which is a harsh and sad reality that some women unfortunately have to face. Because of her condition, Dawn is able to fight off these unwanted advances and, in doing so, she becomes a badass heroine that cinema really needs. At first, Dawn is very frightened of her adaptation, but, as the film goes on, she starts to realize how to control it and use it almost as a gift. I feel as though the whole Vagina Dentata concept is just a metaphor for budding sexuality. Sexual feelings at first can feel like a curse during puberty, something we can’t control even if we wanted to. But, when we learn to understand ourselves and how we work, sexuality can be beautiful, and that’s an idea Lichtenstein conveys through Dawn’s experience with her unusual situation.
A lot of the time, female sexuality is treated as more of a taboo than male sexuality when there really is no reason for it to be. Lichtenstein, who is openly gay himself and most likely understands growing up with a sexuality that others don’t always understand, brilliantly showcases the strange experience of trying to grow up in a society where so many aspects of human sexuality are treated as taboo. In one scene set in a health class, students question why the picture of the female anatomy is blocked out with a sticker while the picture of the male anatomy is left uncensored. The teacher responds by saying that it’s because “it’s different.” This is such a toxic ideology that many young people are taught. The fact that a movie that seems like a silly horror comedy at first glance is tackling an important topic such as female sexuality not being validated by the mainstream, really shows that Teeth is an important film to watch.
Another excellent aspect of this film is Weixler’s performance. It is extremely layered and she showcases the maturity of Dawn in a spectacular fashion. When the film starts, Dawn is an innocent teen who plans on waiting until marriage for sex. As the events of the film proceed, Weixler convincingly shows Dawn change into an experienced young antihero who will destroy anyone who wrongs her or the people she cares about. During the main turning point of the character, in which she is speaking at the last “Promise” rally of the film, Weixler’s nervous stutter and wide-eyed gaze really prove to be a feast for the eyes. It’s really a shame that Weixler hasn’t been seen in much else because her performance here is a powerhouse. Another standout is John Hensley as Dawn’s despicable step brother, Brad. Brad’s devilish demeanor and resting scowl show Hensley’s performance to be nothing short of great.
My only problem with the film is that it never explores why Dawn decided to join “The Promise” in the first place. Her parents don’t seem very religious and even joke about her involvement in the group. A little more backstory into how Dawn came to be a member of the group would have been nice. Nonetheless, Teeth is a slick, clever, and original horror film with enough smart metaphors and above average performances to earn it’s cult status. But be warned, this movie is definitely not for the faint of heart and bites hard when it wants to.