Mitchell Lichtenstein’s ‘Teeth’ Is a Movie for the Dentata-Positive Among Us
In a genre typically considered “for the guys,” it’s time to give a nod to the ladies. Uterus Horror is a subgenre of horror films that focuses on the uniquely female experience of puberty and the act of coming into your sexuality, using horror elements to emphasize and/or act as a metaphor for that experience. These films are often ignored in theaters but quickly develop cult followings. Columnist Molly Henery, who named and defined the subgenre, tackles a new film each month and analyzes how it fits into this bloody new corner of horror.
In September, we rocked out by exploring the convergence of trauma and sexuality in Slumber Party Massacre II. For October, given that this is the spookiest time of the year, we wanted to give you all something special for #Hallowiener. That means we’re going to talk all about the Uterus Horror film that might feature the most wieners, albeit severed ones, Teeth.
This 2007 indie darling was the feature-film debut of writer and director Mitchell Lichtenstein (Happy Tears, Angelica). The film follows Dawn (Jess Weixler), a high school student who has made a promise to God that she will remain a virgin until marriage. After a sexual assault, she discovers there is something inside her acting as a defense mechanism. This results in a slew of severed penises as Dawn discovers her own body and the power she possesses.
While there are people in the world who mirror the personas depicted, for the most part, each character is an exaggerated caricature. Dawn O’Keefe is so pure and virginal that she has never even wondered what female anatomy looks like, let alone glanced at her own genitalia. The school allows textbooks to show only male anatomy and the teacher is incapable of saying the word “vagina.” Then there are the men Dawn encounters. With the exception of her stepfather, all of the men in the film are predatory.
Dawn meets her first crush, Tobey (Hale Appleman), who also made a vow of abstinence. Yet he attempts to sexually assault Dawn, which triggers her internal defenses: vagina dentata. Her vagina takes a bite out of her attacker, leaving him to bleed out, penisless. With each subsequent encounter, Dawn leaves a trail of severed penises as she learns more about her body, both as a woman and as someone with a unique adaptation.
Throughout Teeth, the origin of Dawn’s vagina dentata is kept a mystery. It could be a mutation caused by the nuclear power plant always looming in the background by her house. It could be a natural step in the evolution of female humans in response to the threat of men. Or, it could be an ancient myth come to life. One thing we as the audience know is that this adaptation is something Dawn has had her entire life, although she doesn’t learn about it until she’s a teenager.
The events of Teeth allow this film to fall into the Uterus Horror subgenre not just because it’s about a young woman’s genitalia, but because of the deeper meaning behind the plot. I’ve stated on many occasions that I chose to call this subgenre “Uterus Horror” because I knew it would be a term with the ability to make men uncomfortable. Many men have an inherent fear of female genitalia and female sexuality. This is a common theme throughout Teeth.
After Dawn’s encounter with Tobey, she researches what could be wrong with her. She finds a website that details the myth of vagina dentata. It reads, “The hero must do battle with the woman, the toothed creature, and break her power.” It goes on to explain that these myths are born of a primitive male fear of female sexuality. Because Dawn has embraced a strict Christian, abstinence-only way of life, she believes her next step is to find a “hero” to save her (rather than her saving herself).
Dawn even meets someone she believes is the hero of her story, only for him to be less than gentlemanly. This is how Dawn learns she can control her vagina dentata. Up until this point, her teeth were activated during sexual assaults. With her “hero,” the sexual encounter starts out pleasurable, so her teeth never chomp down. She thinks her vagina dentata has been vanquished, until her feelings of anger and betrayal sever yet another penis.
Dawn then understands the power of her sexuality. She knows sex is a natural, pleasurable thing, as long as it is on her terms. She also knows she has complete control over her vagina dentata and can use it to her benefit. As we saw in other Uterus Horror movies like Carrie and Raw, Teeth conveys how empowering understanding yourself can be, and how strong young women become when they’re able to harness their sexuality on their terms.
Here’s where Teeth veers closer to a superhero or vigilante origin story. Dawn decides to get revenge on her demented stepbrother, Brad (John Hensley), after his negligence leads to the death of Dawn’s mother. Brad is the epitome of a man afraid of female sexuality. He even refuses to have vaginal sex with a woman, instead favoring anal sex because of his deep, subconscious childhood memory of Dawn’s vagina dentata. Yet his desire for Dawn is too strong, and she convinces him to have sex with her. Unfortunately for him, he realizes the truth too late and loses his penis as a result. After that, it is strongly implied that Dawn goes on the run and continues her life using her sexuality, and her teeth, to better the world by biting off the penises of evil men (and I, for one, would have watched a franchise based on that premise).
As we commonly see with Uterus Horror films, Teeth was generally well regarded by film critics, but was not beloved by audiences at the time of its release. Rotten Tomatoes currently has the film at an 80% Tomatometer score and only a 45% Audience Score. While I couldn’t find a definitive number for the film’s budget, Wikipedia lists it as $2 million. Teeth barely made that amount back, grossing $2.34 million worldwide, only $347,578 of that in the US box office according to IMDb. The film did fairly well on the film festival circuit, earning multiple nominations and two award wins. A special jury prize for dramatic performance went to Jess Weixler at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival; the film also won the special jury prize at the 2008 Gérardmer Film Festival.
Teeth takes a very in-your-face approach to Uterus Horror. It doesn’t hold back as it uses exaggerated characters and situations to show how men have historically feared not only female genitalia, but the power a woman holds when she is in control of her sexuality. Lichtenstein throws our heroine, Dawn, into extreme situations to have her quickly go from unaware, innocent virgin to a strong, powerful, feminine being. This is why Teeth has become a beloved film among horror fans, especially women who adore the genre; it is quintessential Uterus Horror that lets young women know they can, and should, be in control of their bodies, and that control makes them the hero of their own stories, leaving a trail of severed penises in their wake.