Dawn (Jess Wiexler) is a pretty high school girl, though not very popular with most of her classmates due to her leadership role in the local teen celibacy group. So committed to the cause, Dawn won’t even go to a movie that may feature kissing, lest it lead her and the others on a group outing to the cinemas into temptation. But temptation soon finds Dawn in the form of Toby (Hale Appleman), and even though he is also a member of Dawn’s abstinence group, he tries to force himself on Dawn when the two are alone together in the woods. It is at this moment that Dawn discovers, much to her own shock and Toby’s detriment, that she is a possessor of the mythical condition known as vagina dentata or “toothed vagina.”
More so than many films, how one responds to Teeth will depend on one’s gender. While both sexes can laugh with the film, women will be chuckling appreciatively as predatory males the type of which they probably have had to deal with repeatedly through their lives are dispatched while men will have an undercurrent of unease in their laughter, often punctuated by a groan of sympathy for the brutality of the fate of Dawn’s victims. Both sexes will leave the movie contemplating their own past interactions with one another. Nearly all of the men Dawn encounters, with the notable exception of her step-father, behave in a predatory manner towards her. While some may dismiss this as a broad characterization of men, it seems like a legitimate point of view for an adolescent girl who has to contend with the changes in her own body as well as the new and different reactions these changes provoke in others.
Mixing horror and dark comedy in an attempt to explore the changes of adolescence and awakening sexuality is nothing new, having been explored in the film Ginger Snaps and the television series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. But here, actor-turned-writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein manages to ground things much more realistically, so you don’t have to contend with the suspension of disbelief required for Ginger Snap’s werewolves or the stylized dialogue of Buffy-creator Joss Whedon. Though much like Whedon’s Buffy, Lichtenstein has subverted the standard horror film trope that the young women are the helpless victims by making them the aggressors against the more traditional aggressive males. Though playing its conceit fairly straight, there is comedy to be found in Teeth’s horror, such as the uneasy laughter that builds to a horrific slapstick moment during Dawn’s visit with a gynecologist.
Teeth is many things- an allegory about adolescence, a story of female empowerment, a cautionary fable for certain men, a satire on abstinence-only education. But the film manages to be more than just the sum of its parts, severed, teethed and otherwise. Teeth manages to address a serious topic in a fun way, never becoming preaching, but still having something smart to say to its audience.