The revenge film is by now a well-established genre, its contours formulaic and comfortingly familiar: In the first act, an innocent is wrong. This is followed in the second act by a period of fading trust that societal institutions will address the violation, which finally culminates in a reluctant but self-empowering third-act journey into vigilantedom — inevitably leading to a righteous bloodbath and, most importantly, piles of dead bad guys. It’s an ageless structural device that bridges the the great narratives of the past to the pop narratives of the present, from Hamlet to The Karate Kid, from The Count of Monte Cristo to Braveheart.
But what about those exceedingly rare films in which the pattern is upended, and the hero takes on evil-doers before they have a chance to commit great wrongs? Teeth, the touching coming of age story of an abstinence-boosting teen who learns, much to her dismay, that she is actually a mythological creature with a toothed vagina sent to rain vengeance down on sexual predators and deviants, is one such film. Call it a “pre-venge,” rather than revenge, story.
“She’s a superhero, basically,” writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein argues on the feature commentary of the recently released DVD. “They have their special things. This is her special thing. And she uses it against bad guys.” The target audience apparently bought the premise. I saw the film toward the end of its theatrical run at a mid-afternoon matinee in New York City filled with college-aged girls reciting the cheekier lines back to the screen Rocky Horror-style while cheering as badly behaved men receive their gruesome comeuppance. This was no place for a man with devious intentions: The spontaneous applause at the punishment meted out to a perverted gynecologist would have sent a chill down the spine of any male pre-med student going into reproductive health for anything save the purist of reasons.
Empowered women have long been a feature of horror films. The clever 2006 faux documentary Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon even poked fun at the conventionality of heroines bubbling up in virtually every successful slasher film franchise. Bemoaning the difficulty of finding his “Survivor Girl,” a strong-willed virgin able to go the distance after he’s killed all her friends, the film’s up-and-coming serial killer gushes to the ambitious and enthralled grad school documentarians, “I love the idea of what I hope she’ll find in herself” — while he’s trying to kill her! For a historical example, recall a young, fey Johnny Depp blathering on to Heather Langenkamp in Nightmare On Elm Street about fighting nightmares the Balinese way, by turning them into poems and songs, as she peruses Booby Traps & Improvised Anti-Personnel Devices. “I’m into survival,” she explains to Depp, who will soon be eaten by a bed. She, on the other hand, lives to fight her way through two sequels.
Contrast that you go girl! spirit with the Death Wish series, which portrayed the release of a dormant masculinity repressed by societal strictures. In the original 1974 film, bleeding-heart liberal architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is pushed to murderous street justice when hoodlums rape and beat his wife and daughter during a home invasion, killing the former and putting the latter into a helpless semi-vegetative state. In Death Wish II (1982) Kersey is living a quiet life in Los Angeles when he’s pushed to murderous street justice after hoodlums — including a young Laurence Fishburne — rape and murder his housekeeper and semi-recovered daughter. The killing of a male friend sets off the bloodbath in Death Wish 3 (1985), but by Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) we’re back to Bronson avenging victimized women, this time taking on drug-dealing hoodlums after his girlfriend’s daughter dies from a crack cocaine overdose. Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994) closes out the series with Bronson tired but still ready to crack skulls when mobsters beat and disfigure his latest unlucky lady friend.
The lesson here might seem to be avoid any entreaties that may come to you via eHarmony from Paul Kersey, but even in Straw Dogs (1971), a film with enough cultural credibility to warrant a luxurious two-disc Criterion edition, the brutal gang rape of the wife of Dustin Hoffman’s character, which director Sam Peckinpah grossly chooses to depict her intermittently enjoying, is avenged only tangentially — and much later in the film. Indeed, so convinced is she that her bookworm-ish husband would not rise to the occasion and defend her, she doesn’t even bother telling him of her ordeal. It is only when the rapists return on an unrelated errand — retrieving a pedophiliac town-idiot who has just smothered a young girl to death — that he stops prancing around like the Cowardly Lion and starts ladling out retribution.
Still, even among horror films — and especially among those that deal with rape — Teeth is unique, and indeed, arguably quite subversive, in its picture of both female empowerment and sexual purity. With its gleeful castrations, it’s not surprising the film has earned comparisons to I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and even a few to The Last House On the Left. Both of these infamous low budget films feature sexual assault, telling tales of the middle-class dropping the pretense of civilization to seek primal revenge and involuntary journeys into eunuch-hood. There is, however, an important distinction to be made between the films: The 40-minute rape and assault of Jennifer Hills in I Spit on Your Grave skates along the border between exploitation and pornography, while the two teenage victims in The Last House On the Left do not even survive to see the revenge left to their parents to carry out.
Meanwhile, it’s true that Dawn, the heroine of Teeth, is victimized as well, but only momentarily, and the justice that follows is swift and unfiltered, like a harder, gorier version of The Legend of Billie Jean. In that far-too maligned, largely forgotten 1985 teens-on-the-lam romp the title character fights off an attempted rape, gives herself a pixie cut after seeing Otto Preminger’s Joan of Arc paean, Saint Joan, and then leads a crusade for mistreated and ignored teens nationwide all to a score largely based on Pat Benatar’s anthem “Invincible.” Teeth has a better script and a worse soundtrack, but there is an undeniable kinship of sentiment.
Toward the end of Teeth, Dawn takes shelter with a boy given to non-threatening (and, thus, apparently attractive) puppy dog-eyed bouts of self-pity. One thing leads to another and she soon discovers her vagina dentata is more under her control than she suspected and need not attack the pure at heart. As she notes on her faux MySpace page, “Honesty and good intentions a must for both our sakes, (actually, more for your sake).”
Unfortunately – at least for the young man – he’s not as honest as he seems. He allows the fantasy of conquest to go to his head and lets it slip that he long ago wagered he could deflower her — taking a phone call from a friend in the middle of sex to document the act.
“You made a bet about me when I had taken a sacred vow of abstinence?” she asks.
“I had a hunch that it wasn’t all that sacred,” he coos back.
“It was, though,” she protests.
“Your mouth is saying one thing, but your sweet pussy is saying something very different.”
Alas, the “sweet pussy” then says something else entirely, and conquering man is suddenly reduced to little boy, wailing in his blood-soaked bed for his mother to take him to the hospital to have the appendage his “special purpose” (as Steve Martin might have it) reattached, and suffering the indignity of a doctor joking to a nurse that the effort “hardly seems worth it.” One can only hope Teeth winds up having the same effect on such young men that one presumes the films of Adrian Lyne — Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, Unfaithful — have had on adulterous spouses.
Still, it’s difficult to handicap the staying power of Teeth. Although it is easy to picture the film gaining a Heathers-esque cult following, the material doesn’t lend itself well to the mores of basic cable — dogs and crabs eating castrated penises are but two vivid examples that immediately spring to mind. And there may not be room for another female-fronted cult hit. Perhaps the vagina dentata will have trouble competing this year with the snarky, poisoned tongue of the lead in last year’s Juno. Still, some of its gross-out cult competitors seem to be doing fine: The Last House On the Left is currently being remade, and I Spit On Your Grave, has a steady stream of direct-to-DVD homages with titles like I Spit On Your Corpse, I Piss On Your Grave, and I’ll Kill You, I’ll Bury You, I’ll Spit On Your Grave, Too! So maybe Teeth has a future on DVD, or even YouTube.
Regardless of the strength of its cult appeal, the film’s significance lies in the way it shatters narrative clichés. “The lower classes of late seem to delight in depictions of women as victims of sex (abuse, rape, harassment),” David Mamet wrote in last year’s Bambi vs. Godzilla, “the more elevated, as victims of marriage.” Teeth breaks that trend. In a perfect world, it would stay broken.
–Shawn Macomber is a contributing editor to The American Spectator.
(Still from Teeth, Roadside Attractions 2008)
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles