Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Red Eye Report's 2010 October Horrorthon #21: "Teeth"

Dawn (Jess Weixler) is your standard, factory-issue late bloomer. Still mystified and even scared by the onset of puberty, Dawn channels her energy into spreading the gospel and preaching the values of abstinence. But even she can't resist getting a little curious when a classmate catches her eye, although when the Don Juan DeHorndog makes his move, both parties are in for one bizarre revelation. It turns out that a certain part of Dawn's anatomy comes equipped with its own set of teeth, which her would-be suitor finds out the hard way. Initially horrified, Dawn comes to embrace this discovery and even use it to strike back at any hormonal sleazebag that dares try taking advantage of her.

Feminism is something that's always hung around the horror genre but been nervous about really cutting loose. There's I Spit on Your Grave's crass exploitation dressed up as faux empowerment, and God knows how many Final Girls we've had through the ages, but the special few that nerds like me write essays about run thin beyond these. How fortunate it is, then, that Teeth isn't all hype but a film worthy of sharing the same mantle space as Carrie and Ginger Snaps. Vital to its success is its ability to not only devise an attention-grabbing premise but develop the perfect tone to make it fly, as well. The result is halfway between Grindhouse and the Lifetime Channel, a premise writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein takes seriously but still plays for comedic effect when appropriate. The outrageousness of the story will bring in the teeny thrill-seekers, but while they're squirming in their La-Z-Boys, Lichtenstein's message cuts through more effectively than any sex ed PSA you had to see in middle school.

To address what's probably your greatest concern, yes, what you think happens in Teeth does happen, and a few times at that. This is where you could say Teeth earns its "horror" stripes, but Dawn remains the object of sympathy. No one gets chomped unless they deserve it (unless you're Josh Pais's gynecologist, in which case it's a darkly gut-busting accident), and Dawn is plenty terrified herself. But as she learns not to fear her own body, Weixler's performance helps to hammer home her character's gradual transformation. Never mind that she's a twentysomething playing a high-schooler to perfection, as Weixler nails both Dawn's naive innocence and the seductive qualities she uses to punish the world's pervs. That said, the narrative doesn't give itself much to work off of and has a tendency to wander, taking what seems like forever to find the meat of the story (no pun intended). Plus, while the symbolism is always engaging, there are some touches (like a recurring image of nuclear smokestacks) that make you wonder if Lichtenstein is just screwing with us.

If all this talk of metaphors and meanings has you scared, fret not, ladies and gents. The beauty of Teeth is that it is engaging on a thematic level but gleefully acknowledges its more lurid roots. Gals get the benefit of feeling better about themselves, and guys will think twice before draping their arm around the shoulder of said significant other. No matter how twisted your palate, Teeth was born and bred to please it.

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