In the new indie film Teeth, Dawn, a young teenager who leads her school’s abstinence-only group, discovers to horror that she is the living embodiment of the myth of the “vagina dentata”- literally “toothed vagina.” At first, horrified, Dawn discovers that she is uniquely empowered to strike back at the various predatory males she finds herself surrounded by.
Vagina dentata may definitely seem to be an outrageous concept, but it is one that the film’s director Mitchell Lichtenstein found to have deeper cultural roots than one might initially expect.
“I was really intrigued by the myth of ‘vagina dentata,’ which you hear in the movie is a really pervasive myth in many cultures,” says Teeth writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein, adding that he was surprised by how widespread the myth turns out to be. “I thought it said something about certain fears men have about women on certain levels and I thought that because of the pervasiveness of [the myth], it would be fruitful to investigate.”
Lichtenstein was speaking to a packed theater in Philadelphia, after a raucously received screening of the film, the audience responding favorably to Teeth’s genre-bending nature. It is almost a year to the day from when the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and it snared a nomination for the festival’s Grand Jury Prize.
“I, luckily, was not obligated to channel [the movie] into a certain genre,” confesses Lichtenstein. “I think one unusual thing about the movie is that it hasn’t been [channeled]. It really does genuinely take from [several genres]. It’s a horror movie, it’s a dark comedy, it’s a coming-of-age film. I was just trying to tell the story in what was the most entertaining and interesting way to tell it without worrying about how it would ultimately be categorized.”
With its subject matter, a Mulligan’s stew of different genres and a first-time director, one would think that Teeth would have been a tough sell to potential investors of the indie film. Lichtenstein reports that those who were approached for money had immediate reactions.
“One thing you find out often with scripts, is that they lay in limbo as people kind of decide whether they might or might not be interested,” he states. “With this one, they were either instantly not interested or very interested.”
Although there is a certain amount of blood, gore and severed male appendages in the film, Lichtenstein says that he made a conscious decision not to show Dawn’s “mutation” on screen. “I was trying to create a heroine, not a monster. The teeth would have been probably a violent and ugly image that I didn’t want to associate with her.”
And for Jess Weixler, the young actress who plays Dawn, Lichtenstein has nothing but praise. “I think she’s great,” he gushes. Evidentially, the judges at the Sundance Festival agreed with him, as they awarded her the Dramatic Special Jury Prize for her “juicy and jaw-dropping performance.”
“She was just out of Juilliard and we had a casting director who thought she’d be great for it,” Lichtenstein elaborates. “We saw many young women for the part, but the thing I loved about her is that she’s a trained actress and she, to me, had the believable innocence and inexperience that was essential to the character. She’s actually a really wonderful comedian but can also play it straight without winking too much at the audience.”