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15 years later, the horror-comedy Teeth still has bite

The cult horror-comedy ‘Teeth,’ about a teenage girl with vagina dentata, just turned 15. Director Mitchell Lichtenstein reflects on the feminist horror film, why it was ahead of its time, and how it says more about misogyny than anything. Continue reading…



We all remember where we were the first time we watched a crab eat a man’s severed penis. For many millennials, it was late at night on our friend’s couch, sitting huddled up in a group of pals, gazing at the television screen with a mixture of horror and delight. “What in the world was that?”

That was Teeth, Mitchell Lichtenstein’s 2007 horror-comedy about a girl whose body hides a shocking secret: the inside of her vagina is lined with rows of sharp teeth, ready to chomp down on any unwanted intruder, to violent, bloody, and oftentimes darkly hilarious results. It’s difficult to imagine that a movie with that description could have ever gotten made, let alone become something of a cult hit, and Lichtenstein himself would be the first to point out that its journey from page to screen was not an easy one. 

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“LOL! No one was game for it,” he says over email of the movie which just celebrated the 15th anniversary of its theatrical release this January. “I had a manager at the time who told me, ‘Never show this script to anyone.'” Once he had gathered the funds to make it himself, he and his crew scouted locations in Austin, Texas with the local film commissioner, who was perfectly helpful on the first day and then never showed up on the second. “Turned out he hadn’t read the script before, and did read it the night after our first scout,” Lichtenstein says. “He called all the locations he had shown us the day before and warned them not to rent to us, that we were doing porn.” 


[Courtesy of Roadside Attractions]

Teeth follows Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Weixler), a sheltered, all-American good girl who devoutly follows the purity culture of Christian abstinence group the Promise, speaking in front of student assemblies about the importance of saving oneself for marriage. Her attraction to Tobey (Hale Appleman), a tall, handsome, curly-haired boy in her tight knit group of friends, threatens to upend her strict code of no hanky-panky. One night, she and Tobey (unfortunately for him) discover her secret: When he forces himself on her after a flirty yet chaste swim in a local lake, he, well, gets his dick bitten off. 

The movie was inspired by the surprisingly pervasive myth of the “vagina dentata,” folktale that pops up all over the world, from the Indigenous legends of North and South America to Hindu and Māori mythology. Lichtenstein first learned about it in a college course on late 19th century literature taught by none other than social feminist critic Camille Paglia. “Versions of the myth appear in many cultures throughout the world,” he says. “And it sneaks, disguised, into popular culture. Just one of many examples is the female monster in Aliens that, with its well lubricated teeth, has been described as a vagina dentata figure. It seemed to me that by disguising the myth in popular culture, we’re perpetuating it, but if we showed it directly, we’d expose the absurdity of it — the absurdity of men ascribing this attribute to women. The myth says very little about women, but a whole lot about men.” 


[Courtesy of Roadside Attractions]

Like its protagonist, Teeth is a lot more than meets the eye, using a grossly misogynistic trope to tell a gratifyingly feminist story. In that sense, it’s a horror movie only to the type of person — an overly horny teen boy, a handsy gynecologist, a traitorous friend — that Dawn’s teeth would attack. “I always thought of Dawn’s teeth as a superpower, and her journey with them follows the same arc as most superhero origin stories,” Lichtenstein explains. “First unaware that they have the power, then horrified by it, then learning its rules, then accepting it, and finally perhaps reveling in it. If you look at de Palma’s Carrie, which I consider to be a superhero movie, it’s pretty much the same arc, minus the indiscriminate slaughter at the end. Dawn will only use her superpower against those deserving of it.” 

It’s this sense of nuance and attention to detail that make Teeth a little more “elevated” than the B-movies it’s lovingly emulating — like The Gorgon, a 1964 Hammer horror about a monster that takes the form of a woman and terrorizes a small town, which Dawn’s stepbrother Brad (John Hensley) watches on TV. That’s also what got it into the main competition slate at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, instead of the Midnight section where more straightforward horror flicks are showcased. It manages to sincerely dramatize a young girl navigating the experience of sexual assault, while also keeping a sly comedic tone throughout, thanks in part to Weixler’s complex and genuinely funny portrayal of Dawn and Lichtenstein’s commitment not to eroticize any of the assaults. It satirized the culture of the 2000s: overly sexualized horror, obsession with purity, George W. Bush-ian state-mandated abstinence teachings. In an early scene, students in a sex ed class are disturbed by the fact that their textbook pages depicting the female reproductive anatomy have been obscured with giant stickers. “They showed the penis picture,” one student argues. “That’s different,” the flustered teacher replies. 



[Courtesy of Roadside Attractions]

As she learns how her newly discovered teeth work, Dawn becomes more used to them, perhaps a metaphorical parallel to any young person growing more comfortable with their body once they learn to ignore the shame pushed on them by the outside world. By the end of the film, Dawn’s teeth have evolved from a horrifying, uncontrollable deformity to a weapon against transgressors, ready to be deployed against anyone who threatens Dawn — and, by extension, any woman — with sexual violence. This willingness to see Dawn as more than just an object of terror and disgust makes Teeth deserving of the same feminist horror reclamation as the likes of Ginger Snaps, The Craft, and Jennifer’s Body

“I knew there was a danger of people seeing the movie as misogynistic because I depict the misogynistic myth of vagina dentata,” Lichtenstein says. “But I hoped that people would see that I’m satirizing the idea of men ascribing this attribute to women, and that I’m turning the myth on its head so that the woman is not the monstrous figure, but the men who assault her are.” In other words, a cautionary tale with a serious bite. 


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