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Horror to Make David Cronenberg Smile

Teeth, actor-turned-filmmaker Mitchell Lichtenstein’s (Resurrection) feature-film debut, starts off as a biting satire on religiously motivated sexual abstinence programs and ends as straight up gory, bloody “body horror”. Teeth is an intelligent, thought provoking, but no less disturbing art-horror film that would make writer/director David Cronenberg (Crash, Dead Ringers, The Fly), the grandfather of the body horror sub-genre, proud.

Dawn (Jess Weixler), a teenager lost somewhere in suburban America, gives a speech in favor of abstinence and “purity pledges". A rousing public speaker, Dawn quickly gets noticed by a new classmate, Tobey (Hale Appleman). Along with two of Dawn’s friends, Gwen (Julia Garro) and Phil (Adam Wagner), Dawn and Tobey go out on chaste dates, verbally reiterating their vows to wait until marriage while their teenage hormones argue otherwise. But Tobey isn’t as pure as he seems and Dawn has been equipped, by natural or artificial mutation (she lives near a nuclear power plant), with a self-defense mechanism against male aggressors -- the “vagina dentata”, or a toothed vagina.

Dawn doesn't have it much better at home. She has to deal with her tattooed, punk stepbrother, Brad (John Hensley), her stepfather, Bill (Lenny von Dohlen), just about the only decent male in Dawn’s life, and her mother, Kim (Vivienne Benesch), who’s suffering from a terminal illness. As Dawn, undereducated about her body, encounters other males with unpure intentions toward her, she discovers both her power to fight back when she’s at her most vulnerable and a new sense of empowerment. Anyone who gets too close to her and insists on something she doesn’t want, is bound to learn that ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s dangerous.

Not surprisingly, Dawn’s journey toward self-empowerment is a bloody, gory one, the kind that will have genre fans reacting with a mix of disgust, repulsion, and maybe even amusement with Lichtenstein's playful, subversive humor. While Lichtenstein doesn’t overload Teeth with blood and gore, he doesn’t shy away from it either. Scenes that begin with sexual arousal usually end badly for the men. These scenes aren’t easy to sit through and they shouldn’t be. While men will come face to face with their own castration anxiety, they’re also bound to feel at least some sympathy for Dawn. Women will likewise sympathize with Dawn’s victimization while feeling discomfort at the rough, perhaps irreversible justice Dawn takes against the men who sexually abuse her.

Ultimately, Dawn puts the “monstrous” in the “monstrous feminine”. She’s every male’s subconscious fears and anxieties made real, but Lichtenstein isn’t interested in making her a villain. Even when Dawn come across a television broadcast of Hammer Studios’ 1964 production of The Gorgon, Lichtenstein plays homage to the horror genre, while subverting it so Dawn doesn’t suffer the same horrible fate as the monstrous character in that film. Lichtenstein handles the mix of horror, subtext, and satire with dexterity almost all the way through until, that is, he finds himself at a loss for a final scene and opts for a clichéd ending that doesn’t belong in a subversive horror film like Teeth. Still, a disappointing final scene is more of a minor flaw than a major one, one easily outweighed by everything that precedes it.

Despite the modest budget, the performances are on par with bigger, more expensive Hollywood productions, presumably due to Lichtenstein’s background as an actor and a standout cast headed by Jess Weixler as Dawn, who handles the character's shifting emotional landscape with the nuance and subtlety of an older, more experienced actress and John Hensley (Matt McNamara on FX’s "Nip/Tuck", who never lets his character, Brad, devolve into a two-dimensional caricature. Together with Lichtenstein’s subtext-heavy screenplay and unobtrusive direction, Teeth will leave genre and indie fans with much to think about it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars