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What’s the best way to get out from underneath your famous father’s shadow? How about write and direct a film about a teenager afflicted with vagina dentata? Yeah, that should do the trick. Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of famed Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, deciding to delve into feature film with the horror/comedy Teeth certainly thought so. It is definitely unlike anything I’ve ever seen and uniquely original, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Besides the premise being inventive and the second half of the film eliciting some genuine laughs, I kind of disliked this whole crazy affair. I’m guessing that the acting was intentionally amateurish, but even so, the story itself is weak and under-developed. It might have been effective as a short film, ridding itself of the very laborious first act that crawled along, unsure of whether it wanted to make us laugh, and therefore seeming unintentionally funny rather than purposely subversive. More uncomfortable than anything else, I never knew exactly how to take what was happening on screen until it was almost over.

Lichtenstein seems to want to give us some back-story into the psyche of Dawn O’Keefe, a young woman who has no idea what makes up a normal vagina. Her school system is Puritanical to the point where a huge starred circle covers the necessary diagram to enlighten her on its page of the Health book and it appears that she almost believes her ‘affliction’ is something all girls go through. Taking a vow, or I should say promise, of celibacy until marriage, it is as if once her plastic red ring is replaced by a golden band, the teeth lying hidden away inside her genitalia will dissolve, allowing her to continue living just like anyone else. Admittedly, the brouhaha surrounding its release in 2007 made me aware of what was actually happening to the lead victim/villainess, so it only took the early flashback of Dawn and soon-to-be stepbrother Brad in a blow-up swimming pool to understand the intricacies of her condition. To then go through forty-five minutes of her being chaste and innocent only made me impatient for the horrors that its billing sold me on. Maybe the exposition is relevant to believe the evolution from naïve schoolgirl to preying mantis, but it doesn’t excuse the plodding pacing used to explain it all.

Then there is the very heavy-handed work in pretty much every facet of the work. It could be the fact I was still wondering whether I was supposed to be laughing or not, but the music cues are so cheesy. On the most innocuous moments that only hold a sense of danger because we know what sort of evil lies between Dawn’s legs, you will hear a menacing percussive note to inflict a sense of horror film dread. Being inside the joke, however, makes the punctuation more tongue-in-cheek joke than any sort of jarring sense of anticipation. As for visually, we are inundated constantly with the visage of two black smoke pumping nuclear power plant silos in the distance. We get it man—the chemicals and radiation mutated her mother’s egg and created the man-eating gene shown very effectively in a fun opening credit sequence. And there is also the unfortunate poor editing transitions. Some are so abrupt you begin to wonder why Lichtenstein even showed the scene before as a few five minute set-pieces do nothing to add to the plot except give one more messed up moment in this demented world.

Once the story gets moving, though, when Dawn finally sees what her weapon can truly accomplish, the laughs become confident and the enjoyment factor increases greatly. It is just a little too late. Jess Weixler is left to languish in mediocrity for the first two-thirds, playing the virgin too over-the-top and very “One Tree Hill” Clean Teen-like, especially being opposite the awkward performance from Hale Appleman as her boyfriend Tobey. When the two are together there is absolutely no sexual tension because their stares and deep breathing and uncertainty overpower any connection. Rather then want the two to be together and see her lash out in fear, we just wait and watch, hoping that she will eventually draw blood. That is why anyone would bother with the film anyway … to satisfy their bloodlust in an interesting way they have never seen before. Josh Pais’s gynecologist helps bring the story into this genre territory with a hilariously funny moment of karmic beauty for the sexual abuser he is and soon Dawn becomes in control of her bodily actions. This is when Weixler shines, the perfect mix of innocent country girl with an edge of malice and a vengeful heart against the male sex. It is this later work that makes me second-guess what I initially thought was horrible acting at the start.

John Hensley’s Brad tries his best to make the beginning tolerable, but even his psychopath can’t do it alone. The first victim of Dawn’s at such an early age he doesn’t remember the incident that scarred his index finger—“I think she bit me,” is all he can conjure up—the guy’s mental instability is fully formed. Adamantly refusing natural intercourse with his girlfriend, we can assume it is due to the deep rooted, subconscious fear of teeth being where they shouldn’t be, even though he appears to tell himself that he is saving it for a long awaited chance at his stepsister. Tattooed, pierced, and very funny in his ability to be just plain mean, his comic relief is all that saves the film to eventually reach its stride with monster unleashed. Only then is the fun sustained with Teeth’s pure absurdity and much more graphic gore moments than anticipated. You do get to see the aftermaths of Dawn’s dentata flourishes, so be prepared. Or just avoid the film completely and hope Lichtenstein’s sophomore effort, Happy Tears, fares better.

Teeth 3/10

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photography:
[1] Josh Pais as Dr. Godfrey and Jess Weixler star as Dawn in comedy horror’s Teeth
[2] John Hensley as Brad with Nicole Swahn as Melanie in Lions Gate Films’ Teeth – 2007

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