Yanking the ancient myth of vagina dentata up to the present day in a treatment combining outright gore, social satire and freakish comedy, “Teeth” bites off more than it can chew. A game, disarming lead performance from Jess Weixler, who won a jury acting prize at Sundance, goes some way toward making palatable this mish-mash, whose provocative nature could carve out a certain commercial niche. All the same, it will be few guys’ notion of an ideal date movie.
Pic’s bold high concept, in which a professional teen virgin discovers she has a set of sharp choppers between her legs, demands perfect pitch, as well as stylistic savvy, for the intended dark comedy to come off. It’s a tall order, to be sure and, in an ideal world, it might have combined the conceptual outrageousness of ’80s Almodovar with the Spanish master’s more recent filmmaking smarts.
Alas, first-time writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of artist Roy and a one-time hunky aspiring thesp when he debuted in “The Lords of Discipline” in 1983, lacks the command to keep the tone consistent when this is what the film needs most. The early going holds promise, as blond, earnest Dawn (Weixler), leads a school chastity movement called the Promise. Dawn has little trouble holding herself to its strict standards until she meets Tobey (Hale Appleman), an upstanding lad who professes similar beliefs.
Nature takes its course, however, and in a moody Garden of Eden-like sequence under a lakeside waterfall, Tobey pushes Dawn too far. As much to her surprise as his, Tobey pays the ultimate price for his transgression, as is made graphically clear in shots of a crucial body part on the ground after it’s no longer attached to Tobey.
Dawn sensibly visits a doctor to determine what she’s got down there, but he, too, suffers a painful fate for trespassing. And so it goes, with tentative psychological probings of Dawn’s dawning awareness crossed with increasing levels of gross-out horror comedy, all to gradually diminishing returns.
One of the script’s weirdest formulations involves the heroine’s sinister half-brother Brad (John Hensley), a belligerent, tattooed and pierced heavy-metal freak who lives under the same roof with Dawn and their dad and is acting out a lifelong sexual obsession with her. Resolution of this relationship isn’t pretty either.
“Teeth” has a generally heavy, vaguely unsavory feel that, fortunately, is lightened by Weixler. Resembling an entirely appealing cross between Heather Graham and Kate Winslet, Weixler is prim and determined at the outset, but injects a gathering intensity of curiosity to her character as the untoward events accumulate. By allowing her to become neither victim nor monstrous avenger, young thesp keeps Dawn engagingly real.
Shot in the Austin area, pic could have used a brighter, sharper visual style to punch up the irreverent elements.