Written and Directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007
It took three years for the world over to generate a peer to Edgar Wright’s unassailable masterpiece SHAUN OF THE DEAD. The time is finally upon us and it is with a wave of relief that I am honored to declare a heroic cohort in the horror comedy realm; Mitchell Lichtenstein’s feature length directorial debut, TEETH. What Wright and Pegg did for zombies, Lichtenstein has done for creature features: toil within the rigid conventions of the genre in order to bestow upon the field an intimate humanity, a story bifurcated with implacable comedy and deeply personal terrors.
People tend to discount the circadian heart beats of horror at the core of SHAUN OF THE DEAD. I suppose this is because that British gold packs irresistible comedy. I fear the same fate will befall TEETH. The pitch Lichtenstein reaches is one of refined, timeless perfection.
Jess Weixler is a casting Godsend in her role of Dawn, the God loving virgin soul struck with a curse of such divine inspiration that anyone who sees the film will go to their grave remembering it. And yet such inspiration (which I can only hope out of professional jealousy percolated within Lichtenstein for years until it evolved into the unique beauty we were gifted with) will also be the film’s downfall with mainstream viewers. They will never appreciate how rare it is, for they will be too busy either giggling or squirming over Dawn’s extraordinary plight; Vagina Dentata.
Or, put less elegantly; Dawn has teeth in her vajayjay.
Forgoing the brooding prospects for drama such a scenario has, TEETH is a mean breed of funny, sewing its dark seeds for comedy right away. Our journey is seated in a middle America town, the kind of place that instantly answers the question, “When the more affluent side of town declares ‘Not in My Backyard!’, whose yard does it go in?” As evidenced by the film’s opening shot of dual nuclear cooling towers within walking distance of a residential neighborhood. The scene is one played out across this land; two adults sharing a flirt in lawn chairs on a warm summer day while children play in an inflatable pool. We learn the youngsters are potential step siblings right before the male of the two utters the inevitable, “Now show me yours.” Cut back to the schmoozing parents and an off screen cry. Back to the boy, a deep cut sourcing a pool of blood.
The film’s build is a predictable one given the scenario we are already aware of. Dawn is unaware of her teeth. She is a good girl of devoted faith, a role model for abstinence. That is, of course, until she meets Tobey (Hale Appleman). I am no fan of the review play-by-play, so I’ll leave the story at that. Even if you can imagine the avenues TEETH will surely explore, fret not, as Lichtenstein has the most steadfast of hands. Events unfurl at a natural pace, never forcing themselves upon the viewer. TEETH never compromises, never lowers itself to that juvenile place a film about vagina teeth could easily have gone.
It has a devilish sense of humor that brings with it roaring laughter. There is a moment with a gynecologist that culminates in a bellowing line delivery of such classic terror revelation that I get an unshakable smile just thinking about it. The film’s gore is restrained and to the point, never overstaying its welcome, but perfectly willing to put us face to face with a bloody penis, inducing skin crawls and uneasy legs every time (for men, at least). I cannot speak highly enough of Jess Weixler, who is a dream in this role. Her performance is fearless committal to her craft and shows nothing but implicit trust in her director’s vision. The script is a riot all its own, but Weixler has the viewer signing on every dotted line.
With TEETH, writer/director/genius Mitchell Lichtenstein has performed Frankensteinian surgery on the creature feature, using a tragic tale of a girl just entering womanhood as a disguise for Western social fears of female sexuality. That is, seemingly, a broad (and familiar) target, but he hits it while striking a delicate balance between painting all women as Goddesses and all men as Devils. Because Dawn, our creature, is so believable, so lovable, so real, one might just forget that what they are seeing is even considered a creature feature, but like the Frankensteins and Wolfmen prior, TEETH cuts into the grounded reality of living life an abomination. It does so with classic sensibilities, ravishing wit and indelible imagery.
The words “Instant Classic” are more populous than the actual movies that qualify, but TEETH is that and world’s more. I love this movie. I love Lichtenstein’s remarkable restraint behind pen and camera, I love Jess Weixler, I love how its horrors are simultaneously passive and confrontational, and I love that it is outright hysterical.