[Spoilers threaded throughout the review]
Based on my last post, you may wonder whether horror is the genre for me if sexual assault wears at my soul. But romance makes me sad, I find most comedy awful, and misogyny is everywhere. I like horror because sometimes women have or get the power.
In a film-making sense, I wouldn’t say that TEETH is great. It’s clearly low-budget, but more than that, something about it feels amateur, even naive, which is occasionally charming? I pose that as a question because the sometimes tentative/sometimes deliberate direction and the indie not-acting done by a lot of the actors in the movie didn’t bother me, but it was something I noticed, and I feel I shouldn’t notice things until the second viewing. But the naivete could also mirror our protagonist, Dawn, as she discovers herself. I’m a sucker for female self-discovery films like TEETH and RAW. RAW is better, but TEETH has its own qualities.
I can’t speak to how it is for guys, but women’s self-discovery is intrinsically difficult, because unlike cis guys, our junk is well between our legs and inside rather than convenient for viewing up front and center. Despite being raised in the far end of the Bible Belt, both my schools and my church made every effort to keep us informed. Ironically, our fifth grade puberty course at church was more comprehensive, but health classes going forward were more than adequate when it came to anatomy, for the nineties–which means there was and probably still is a dearth of information about variations in anatomy and queer genders and sexualities. Had to wait until college for that, not that I was really paying attention to variety until then.
But I know there are schools, churches, and homes where anatomy is undiscussed, as though if they don’t talk about it, nothing will happen (which has been true precisely never in the history of time). I was armed with all kinds of fascinating information–and I’m still fascinated–yet everything happening to me was so difficult to talk about, and it was all happening in places I couldn’t see and it all felt so much bigger and scarier than me. I used a mirror to look things over, but it’s not the same. Things you see in the mirror don’t feel connected to you–it’s a secondhand image.
So suffice it to say, I really identified with the wonderful, scary act of female self-discovery in TEETH, in a society that seems to prefer leaving woman mysterious (seriously, we didn’t know the clitoris went beyond the external glans and hood until 1999, people, and I will never let our scientists off the hook for that). Granted, I don’t have teeth in my vagina. At least, I don’t think I do.
Jess Weixler, who plays Dawn, is expected to carry the film, and with an otherwise uneven cast, her earnestness and raw skill elevates the rest of the movie. She’s endearing, engaging, and even when she’s the vice president of the purity doctrine, you still like her. She’s innocent, and you believe it, even though real innocence feels hard to come by.
But innocence arises from ignorance, and at her age, it’s really only a matter of time, even with the big censorship sticker on the cis female anatomy page in their school’s health book–and no, there’s no accompanying sticker for the penis. It’s just the vagina that’s icky and obscene (same principle that makes cock, dick, or prick less offensive for the average person than cunt, pussy, quim, or twat, not that there’s any real good name for genitals, for some reason). I’m not sure whether there are actual health classes that censor only one gender this way, but I hesitate to say it’s unbelievable.
You’ve probably heard of the premise of TEETH before. Teenager espouses purity culture (for those unfamiliar, it’s a primarily American Christian phenomenon that emphasizes saving sex until marriage, usually foregoing all forms of sexual activity, sometimes even going as far as forbidding kissing or any kind of touching at all). Purity teenager meets cute guy. They try to maintain the purity boundaries, though it’s clear she’s tempted and feels guilty because of it. However, cute boy pushes past those boundaries and forces himself on her–with the (intentionally) hysterically awful line “I haven’t jerked off since Easter!”
Well, turns out that power plant we saw from Dawn’s childhood did more than give her mom cancer. In that sense, TEETH could be considered a comic book origin story–villain or hero, take your pick. Dawn has vagina dentata, the myth (sadly) that women have teeth in their vagina and that a woman must be pleased in order to survive PIV sex with her. As a myth, nothing shows the fear of the mysteriousness of women’s parts quite like wondering whether her vagina’s going to bite your dick off. Why men aren’t more afraid we’re going to do that with our actual mouths, I don’t know, and given the prevalence of sexual assault even in places with variations of the myth, it couldn’t have been that believed.
But Dawn’s got it. Good for Dawn. And so begins the also hilarious castration motif. Seriously, though, penises are always funny-looking. Seeing them bitten off just emphasizes their ridiculousness.
Of course, it’s not funny to Dawn, who is traumatized twice in one afternoon. She’s blaming herself for the assault. She’s disenchanted with a purity script that now sees her as impure forever (previously chewed gum and dirty sticky tape analogies burn). She’s disenchanted with her fantasies of a pure wedding that culminates in sanctioned marital sex with a perfect gentleman from the same community. All her life, she’s defined herself against her stepbrother, who got bit as a juvenile offender fingering her in a kiddie pool and grew up into a ‘hardcore’ delinquent who now only does anal with his girlfriend while obsessing over Dawn, though unsure about his motives for either–but frankly, he’s not much of a thinker.
Dawn was the good girl. Dawn was never the problem child. Dawn was Little Miss Sunshine, Princess of Purity, and now she can’t see herself like that anymore. She tears down the childish purity propaganda she taped all over her bedroom walls–as a counterpoint to the porn plastered over her stepbrother’s room.
Thus begins her period of self-discovery, even though she’s afraid of herself, of being judged by her purity community, of being caught for what she did. She patiently soaks the sticker off the health text to try to understand herself and finally meets a vulva for the first time. She goes to a shady AF gynecologist, who finally gives her the name that’s been the stuff of jokes and legends: vagina dentata.
Traumatized once more–sex and puberty is honestly terrifying–she reaches out to someone who she thinks is a friend, and the cycle of men taking advantage and getting poetic justice continues, but she’s also gradually adjusting to her sexuality and–more important–the power she has because of it.
Seriously, though, there’s not a single castration you’ll regret. And in the midst of the horror, TEETH is at its heart a black comedy about female sexuality, so it’s okay to be horrified, and it’s okay to laugh. Even the poster is fantastic, evoking the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET bath scene and JAWS in equal measure, because it’s a supernatural horror movie and a creature feature at the same. One thing’s for sure–you will be entertained by this indie gem, which has already reached cult status among horror fans.