I've been thinking a bit about dentistry, dentition, and various things dental this week due to a convergence of circumstances. First, I had some minor dental work, then at my neighbor's yard sale I picked up a copy of a children's book called Your Wonderful Teeth, which has some marvelous photographs. And then I watched the movie Teeth.

The pictures from the former will speak for themselves, but the latter requires a few words.

Teeth is a horror-comedy about vagina dentata. I saw the trailer a few months ago and had one of those "No, they didn't ... oh wow, they
did..." moments where at first I assumed my own strange brain was projecting something, only to realize that my projection was entirely accurate when the voiceover announced: "Dentata. It's Latin for 'teeth'."

I didn't expect much of the movie. How could it possibly live up to its premise? (And what, exactly, was there to live up to?) I assumed it would probably just be an extended castration fantasy, and though in some ways it is, the ways in which it is are amusing, because writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein has deliberately flipped some of the expectations and prejudices inherent not only in the vagina dentata myth, but in ordinary woman-in-peril/woman-is-evil horror movies.

There is no way a movie about vagina dentata could avoid making the audience focus on the female protagonist's genitalia, and Lichtenstein has a good time in the opening parts of the movie manipulating this fascination. Visually, the movie evoked for me, in the beginning at least, Edward Scissorhands and Heathers -- weird suburbia, filmed in a stylized manner (or mannered style) that makes everything feel just a little bit beyond reality. The protagonist, Dawn (well played by Jess Weixler), is a member of an abstinence-till-marriage club at her high school, and her passionate devotion to this cause obviously channels all her thoughts and energies to one subject: sex. Sex for Dawn is full of horror and attraction, and it is her primary concern in life, a concern that is socially sanctioned because her obsession is expressed through the language of conservative morality. When she finally has to admit her attraction to one of her classmates, she is unprepared and conflicted, and he -- who has been trying to live up to her moral teachings -- descends to rape. And then ... crunch.

The gruesome violence of Teeth -- and it is explicit and bloody -- is always of a particular type: male. The gory moments of the movie are all about what Dawn's teeth bite off. Instead of the movie being all about what horrors can be inflicted on a pure and innocent female body, it becomes a movie about what can be inflicted on men who have previously always gotten what they wanted.

Despite its gore, Teeth is really a superhero movie. Dawn could be one of the X-Men (X-Women?). Mutation is a concept she latches on to when she is trying to figure out what is going on with her body, and the real arc of the narrative is of a superhero learning to control her powers -- and, ultimately, to use them for good. The last section of the movie exudes a spirit of joy and empowerment.

Were Dawn ever to write a manual for women with vagina dentata, she might even be tempted to call it Your Wonderful Teeth.

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