On 20 June, 2008, cult film Teeth was released in the UK, introducing a memorable new take on body horror.
In writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein's horror comedy Dawn (Jess Weixler) — the head of the abstinence society — discovers in the most brutal way that she possesses a second set of teeth in an unexpected place: vagina dentata.
Over 90 minutes of camp-horror fun any predatory male that Dawn comes across loses an appendage (or at least a few fingers) in their forceful pursuit of penetration.
Lichtenstein first learnt about the vagina dentata myth when taking Camille Paglia’s Decadent Literature class in college. He was struck by the pervasiveness of the legend telling Yahoo UK "versions of the myth appear in many cultures throughout the world and it sneaks, disguised, into popular culture”.
Watch a trailer for Teeth
The most famous cultural example of the monstrous feminine sporting this affliction being the xenomorph in Ridley Scott's Alien, with the filmmaker explaining “with its well lubricated teeth, [Alien has] been described as a vagina dentata figure”. By making Teeth a literal depiction of the myth Lichtenstein aimed to “expose the absurdity of it” demonstrating “that the myth says very little about women but a whole lot about men”.
Teeth succeeded in its depiction of the worst of men’s predatory behaviour and the ludicrousness of this monstrous myth. Not only describing Dawn’s second pair of teeth, the title also describes the film's biting satire which gives it its unmissable camp humour.
From Dawn defeatedly stating she 'already ate' when returning home after her first sexual experience to the entirely pink bathroom where she discovers what's hidden below; over a decade on Teeth’s tongue in cheek approach to the prevailing subject of gendered sexual violence still evokes a chuckles.
However not everything has aged well since the film’s global release in 2008. Lichtenstein understands he made some missteps: ”I have since been schooled”.
He speaks openly about the scene in which Dawn has her first, supposedly positive, sexual experience, which begins with Ryan (Ashley Springer) offering a sedative to settle her nerves. “At the time, I thought that because she knowingly accepted the sedative — she wasn’t roofied — that the scene wasn’t problematic.
"I didn’t understand then that consent is key, even if despite not giving consent, she winds up enjoying the experience.”
This questionable scene doesn’t take away from the fun of Teeth, and the reason the film is still enjoyable 15 years on is that while Dawn may be the victim of many terrible assaults, audiences can look on safe in the knowledge that her assailants will end up worse off.
What the filmmaker may have gotten wrong about consent culture, he makes up for by punishing each man who holds a uniques wickedness. From the more explicit rapist (Hale Appleman), to the doctor who hides behind a veneer of professionalism (Josh Pais), or the teenage boy who deludes himself into believe he’s the good guy (Ashley Springer), it never ends well for them.
They scream in pools of blood searching for their amputated members, uncertain how the horror they were inflicting turned into a nightmare for them.
These brutal images of genital amputation are on par with the utter contempt noughties horror had for its characters. You would be sensible to assume that the many bloody phallic scenes would lead Teeth to be certified with the highest rating.
However the Motion Picture Association settled on a “relatively mild R rating”, believing it’s strong message against sexual violence, “should be seen by young men to serve as a warning against sexual assault”. In the UK, Teeth received an 18 rating from the BBFC with the accurate warning: "contains very strong sexualised gore."
Despite the amount of men that ended up mutilated due to their sexually violent actions, Lichtenstein does not deem Teeth a 'rape-revenge' narrative explaining “revenge requires some degree of premeditation throughout most of the movie, the men’s punishment is involuntary on Dawn’s part”.
Much like her hidden defence mechanism, Dawn’s protective mentality is subconscious as she uses the abstinence club to keep herself safe from her prevailing fears of sex. Dawn is in the midst of transitioning from girlhood to womanhood. Her naivety is being stripped back. From the outset it’s clear her reticence comes from early intrusive experiences at the hands of her step brother (John Hensley).
Despite its actualisation of myth, Teeth explores the unwanted sexual attention that girls become aware of as they enter womanhood. Turning a universal experience into men’s nightmare is what makes Teeth an irreverent ride worthy of our attention.
By Teeth’s closing scene Dawn wears her monstrous feminine identity as battle armour, not an affliction. To Lichtenstein Teeth, is a more akin to a superhero origin story.
It's only when Dawn understands the full extent of her power that she begins to enact her revenge.