The horror genre thrives on metaphor, and in exploiting the myth of "vagina dentata," Mitchell Lichtenstein's grisly B-movie Teeth has found a doozy. From the Latin meaning "toothed vagina," the myth generally expresses a fear of castration, and was originally meant as a warning to men about having sex with strange women, but Lichtenstein has cleverly reversed perspectives. In Teeth, this shocking anomaly evolves into a David Cronenberg-like expression of psychic distress, as a prim teenage girl undergoes a coming of age that's frightening at first, then oddly emboldening, once she realizes her sexual leverage. It's a brilliant concept for a horror movie, not least because the genre is usually so dedicated to male gratification, but the material requires a consistent tone, and first-time director Lichtenstein (son of pop artist Roy) can't quite get a handle on it.
If nothing else, Lichtenstein has made a great discovery in Jess Weixler, who proves adept at expressing every stage of her character's development, from good-girl naïveté to trepidation and shock to a frightening, darkly funny sort of self-possession. Playing the confident leader of a youth-abstinence group, Weixler wears her "promise ring" defiantly, as if it were an amulet to ward off the mockery of her crude, sinful high-school peers. She embarks on a tentative romance with another ring-bearer (Hale Appleman), but when they retreat to a Garden Of Eden-like idyll, he tries to take advantage of her. Then Weixler discovers her unique anatomical gift/curse, which initially horrifies her, but also gives her the power to thwart any unwanted trespassers.
In many ways, Teeth resembles Abel Ferrara's 1981 cult classic Ms. 45, another female-empowerment fantasy about a violated woman—in this case, a mute seamstress—who takes revenge on men, though her vengeance is lascivious and predatory. As the seamstress "speaks" through her gun, the film follows her headlong descent into madness, ending with a memorable fever-dream of a climax that takes her death wish as far as it can go. Though Weixler's increasing awareness of her body—or at least, her ability to control her Kegel muscles—makes her revenge a little more nuanced, Teeth lacks the purposefulness of Ferrara's film, and it eventually lapses into a crude succession of dismemberments. Still, the conceit alone has considerable [fill in cheesy dental metaphor here] and the key scenes pay off in deliciously nasty camp horror.