There is nothing mysterious about a penis. It’s right out there, getting us into trouble like some kind bald, purple member of the Little Rascals. It gets hard at random times, and as soon as it does, it’s good to go. Give it a rub and it’ll tell you when it’s done in something that’s halfway between a snail vomiting and a whale breathing. It’s so easy, a child could handle one. Not that I’m advocating this. I’m just saying, you know, theoretically. The vagina on the other hand, an exquisite enigma. Everything is inside, and for someone used to the directness of a penis, the vagina can be frustratingly poker-faced. And there’s so much going on down there. Erogenous zones, fluids, flaps and nubbins; it’s all very intimidating for first time users. Adding to that the power is the fact that every heterosexual man desperately wants access to at least one vagina, but the actual logistics remain hazy until he can get his hands on one. Compounding the frustration is the way girls jealously guard access, like they’re keeping little gold eggs in there. A little resentment is inevitable. And since mythology and its bastard religion are the product of the imagination of pubescent boys, that resentment has exploded in the ubiquitous legend of the vagina dentata. For those of you who missed that day in Latin class, this translates as “toothed vagina” and is exactly what it sounds like.
This week’s film, 2007’s Teeth, takes place in an idyllic small town in the Springfieldian shadow of a nuclear power plant. High school student Dawn (the wonderful Jess Weixler, who needs to be in more movies) is just about as wholesome as you can possibly be without little pixie wings. Blonde and blue eyed, she dresses in lavenders and floral prints, her t-shirts covered in unicorns and rainbows. As appropriate for someone who dresses like she should be hosting a kid’s show, she’s really really psyched about remaining a virgin. She is the local spokesperson for the purity brigade, giving talks to high school students about how it’s so important to save oneself for marriage. She’s wound so tightly, she refuses to see a PG-13 on the grounds it will feature heavy making out.
Things go pear shaped when she is swept off her feet by Tobey, a boy who looks like a more reasonably coiffed Jasper from Twilight. They try not to give into raging hormones, but pretty soon temptation takes over, culminating with a swim together in a deeply symbolic forest lake complete with a large and womblike cave. Predictably, the months of sexual tension unmitigated by regular and healthy masturbation combine with the cognitive disconnect of claiming to be a virgin in God’s eyes despite having done the deed. Tobey takes things too far and tries to rape Dawn. Unfortunately for him, Dawn has that vagina dentata we discussed earlier, and chomps Tobey’s cock off. Hey, if you’re not gonna use that thing responsibly, you’ll find zero sympathy from me.
Dawn’s home life is no better. The product of a blended family, she lives with her seriously ill mother, sweet stepfather, and creep of a stepbrother. The very first scene of the film is Dawn and her stepbrother Brad in a kiddie pool, Brad showing his and demanding to see hers. This results in a bitten finger, since Brad has apparently never heard the phrase “look with your eyes.” Brad’s close encounter leads to a repressed memory and a lifelong fear of vaginas, manifesting in disturbing misogyny and an insatiable demand for anal sex. Brad, spurred on by this fear, desperately wants to conquer Dawn by fucking her. And he is not shy about this desire.
Dawn is left to navigate her sudden carnivorous sexual maturity on her own. A gynecologist is no help; he’d rather molest her than do his job. Her sex ed teacher has a hard time even saying the word vagina (whereas without batting an eye he will refer to his dick or his rod or his Johnson) and the textbook has a large sticker obscuring the diagram of the female reproductive system. When the other students tear it away, it rips the page itself, mostly because textbooks have a clear understanding of symbolism. Dawn gets the sticker off without destroying what’s underneath by soaking it first, which is a pretty good primer on female arousal.
Teeth is a film preoccupied with purity, although it defines it differently than the traditional way. In the early going, when Dawn is still defiantly virgin, she only wears white — the color of purity to western eyes — to bed. These are the scenes where sexual thoughts haunt her, and so would seem the most impure. As the film progresses and she becomes more comfortable with her power (and is having more sex), she paradoxically wears more and more white. By the end, when she has fully accepted herself and her unique sexuality, she wears white from head to toe, the power plant spewing fluffy white smoke into the blue sky. What the film suggests then, is not that pure and virgin are synonyms, but rather that purity stems from being unashamed of the power of one’s womanhood.
The other relentless image in this film is that of circles. Everywhere, nice, round feminine circles. The first and most obvious is the blood red purity ring she wears in the beginning. She discards this after Tobey’s castration, throwing it over a cliff where it artfully circles the camera before falling out of frame. During a purity talk, she is again circled by the halo of lens flare. The wheels of her bike, the sticker in the textbook, everywhere she is haunted by circles. Oftentimes they surround her or encircle her at moments of doubt.
As appropriate for a film with roots in folklore, Teeth has a strong connection to mythology. When Dawn first researches the vagina dentata, she discovers it in a plethora of cultures, all of which have the same prescription: a hero must conquer her power and devour it. Which sounded to me like maybe they should think about going down on her or something, but that would be a healthy reaction, something mythology isn’t big on. When Dawn returns to the scene of Tobey’s castration, she finds a crab chowing down on the severed cock, an allusion to the story of Osiris. Her purity group has the expected Christian overtones, which crescendoes in a delirious scene where she attempts to confess her mutation and sexual activity only to be confronted by relentless chanting about the serpent. It’s a ducking stool away from turning into a witch trial, and telling in how focused they are on the phallic snake. Dawn is a witch, an avatar of feminine power that men cannot conquer without losing their manhood. The true irony is that Dawn is utterly harmless so long as she as treated with love and respect. You know, how you’re supposed to treat other people.
Teeth is a fantastic little gem of a horror film. With a solid feminist message, fascinating symbols, an excellent lead actress, and truly horrifying gore effects, it’s ninety minutes of penis-destroying bliss.