The Dentist (1996) and Brian Yuzna’s Search for His Very Own Horror Franchise

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One of the few minor details that bugged me about Brian Yuzna’s otherwise satisfying class politics body horror Society was that it left its abrupt conclusion open for a sequel instead of chasing a more logical narrative end. It’s now been over two decades since Society‘s initial release and, although the idea of expanding the original film’s scope to include other shunting-obsessed wealthy circles like Hollywood or Washington DC sounds promising, there still has yet to be a proper sequel. Leaving Society open in that way, then, has only weakened its own fortitude as a standalone film. Yuzna would have to look elsewhere to establish a horror franchise all of his own the way Nightmare on Elm Street is closely associated with Wes Craven and Alien is associated with Ridley Scott. Yuzna directed two Re-Animator sequels, Bride of Re-Animator & Beyond Re-Animator, and served as a producer on the first, but that series truly belongs to Stuart Gordon. He also directed two sequels for the Christmas-themed slasher series Silent Night, Deadly Night, but that franchise is way too loose & haphazard to claim an authorial voice. Brian Yuzna’s very own horror franchise wouldn’t be found in completing works others had started, but in staking his own ground as the director of both The Dentist (1996) & The Dentist 2 (1998). The Dentist may not have the cult classic staying power of Society as a continually referenced horror work, but its effect is just as equally, brutally fucked up, and it’s easy to see how a single madman could be responsible for both acts of cinematic sadism.

Usually when you rewatch a movie that scared you as a kid, it turns out that it wasn’t so traumatizing after all. That wasn’t my experience with Yuzna’s 1996 body horror slasher The Dentist. If anything, The Dentist felt ten times more nightmarish than it did to me as a kid on this most recent watch. It’s a deeply, almost unforgivably upsetting work, playing as if the shunting sequence from Society were stretched out to feature length instead of capping off an otherwise conventional late 80s horror. Co-written by Yuzna & Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon, The Dentist stars Corbin Bernsen as a killer dentist eventually known as Dr. Caine, who on the surface wouldn’t be all that different from any other cliché of a refined sadist who listens to classical music while slaying/mutilating his victims, except that he hurts them through the delicate nerve centers of their mouths. Some people have a difficult time stomaching on-screen violence directed towards eyeballs or fingernails or groins or any number of specific locations on the body because of a physical aversion to witnessing its depiction. I’m that way with dental-themed gore. The visual of a tooth being pulled or a tongue being split physically hurts me every time, so The Dentist wouldn’t have to do much to make me sweat in fear & anxiety. In fact, it’s likely that catching this film on HBO at a young age is partly why I’m that particular kind of squeamish in the first place. With the first The Dentist film, however, Yuzna & Gordon found a way to make the premise even creepier by aligning the audience POV with the mind of the deranged killer who would inflict that kind of pain in the first place. It is, on every conceivable level, a deeply uncomfortable experience.

In what’s essentially a slasher film take on Falling Down, The Dentist aligns the audience’s perspective with that of a hateful, Conservative monster who has a total meltdown once his marriage starts to fall apart. After wrestling with paranoid suspicions that his wife is sleeping with the pool boy, Dr. Caine does some sleuthing & catches the two lovers in the act (on their anniversary, no less) and suffers a full-blown psychotic break. In his pitch black misogynist fantasy, he confronts the pair mid-fellatio and forces his wife to bite the pool boy’s cock at gunpoint in a moment to so hateful against women as a species it would make even Russ Meyer blush. This is the exact seething anger lens we see the world through in this film. We already know Dr. Caine is evil because he fantasizes about hurting his own wife and obsesses over the state of every one he meets’ teeth, but even that isn’t enough for Yuzna, who doesn’t traffic in subtlety. Enraged by the witnessed infidelity, Dr. Caine shoots a dog out of spite, goes to work at his dental practice to mutilate multiple victims (mostly women & children) during sadistic oral procedures, and eventually cuts out his own wife’s tongue as a gift on their big anniversary date. It’s deeply, spiritually upsetting stuff, misanthropic violence paired with creepy internal monologues about how, “Nothing, no matter how good or pure is free of decay. Once the decay gets started, it can only lead to rot, filth, and corruption.” Divorced from Dr. Caine’s hateful paranoia about a “lack of respect in a world that goes on ignoring dental hygiene” and his personal hangups about how sex = filth, The Dentist is still a horror show. In close-up, medical detail, gums are punctured by hooked teeth scrapers, teeth are violently yanked from their grooves, tongues are stabbed with high-pitched drills, molars are ground into white powder, etc. Yuzna shoots these nightmare visuals through an unflinching fish-eye lens, something usually reserved for a children’s Saturday morning TV show, a music video, or a comedy, but it’s impossible to take the gore lightly. Still, it’s in marrying that visual terror to an even uglier, more difficult to stomach world view and never allowing a second of escape from either that Yuzna found a way to sustain the abject disgust of Society‘s shunting sequence for the entirety of a feature film.

The Dentist 2 (1998) would not be able to repeat that trick. Leaving behind the philosophical monologues on tooth & soul decay that made the first one so especially unnerving, this sequel follows the same pattern of a lot of horror follow-ups and focuses instead on increasing the gore. Yuzna even brings in Society collaborator Screaming Mad George to contribute to the film’s horrific special effects (one of ten shared projects between the two sick bastards), tipping his hat to the fact that gore had become a priority over writing. Escaping from the pristine, dream space psych ward where he had been locked up at the conclusion of the first film, Dr. Caine hides under a false identity in a small, isolated town where he’s now the only qualified dentist (after brutally murdering the one already operating there, of course). The first The Dentist film already stretches audience belief of how long Dr. Caine could possibly get away with killing & mutilating patients before being stopped either by law or by mob rule, but the second one really has no concern for anything resembling reality. The plot isn’t anything to speak of, other than that the dentist is made to feel jealous by a new woman’s sexual desires in a new locale while his mutilated wife from the first film hires a PI to track down his whereabouts. Instead of philosophical diatribes about filth & decay, the film signifies its killer’s murderous insanity through his constant hallucinations of rotting teeth, roaches crawling in his parents’ mouths, and non-existent demons with cartoonishly long tongues (who would’ve fit right in with members of Society). Dr. Caine periodically cuts his arm to relieve these hallucinations, at one point giving himself a crimson mask once they become unbearable in their persistence. There are a couple noteworthy moments, like Dr. Caine joking that “Pulling teeth is like, well, pulling teeth!” during an interrogation, a single-scene cameo from Clint Howard, and the wife from the first film finger fucking the dentist’s mouth to tease out his tongue for a fitting act of revenge, but for the most part The Dentist 2 is all gore! gore! gore! And you know what? It kinda works. I was sweating in fear during the oral horror scenes as much in the sequel as I was with the first film, despite logically knowing that it was a desperately inferior work.

Diminishing returns and forgotten thematic nuance is a large part of the nature of horror franchises as an art form, though, and it’s fitting that Brian Yuzna’s only franchise all to his own got to see that roundabout way of success. The Dentist 2 left its conclusion just as open-ended as Society‘s for a sequel that likewise never came, but Yuzna had already succeeded in scoring his very own franchise just by getting two films deeo. You can feel it as soon as Dr. Caine delivers the first film’s declaration, “I am the instrument of hygiene, the enemy of decay and corruption, The Dentist. And I have a lot of work to do.” Unfortunately, I don’t believe The Dentist has been treated with the same cult classic longevity as Society, a film it rivals at the very least in pure shock value. It’s so overlooked that its entire “Production History” section on Wikipedia reads, “The Dentist was shot in Los Angeles in a residential home.” That can always change, though. Maybe Society‘s Trump-era cultural resurgence will inspire more people to look back to The Dentist the way I just have or maybe people will dig up the first one just to see Baby Mark Ruffalo make an appearance in a few brief scenes. Either way, whether it remains obscure or not, Brian Yuzna has succeeded in creating a horror franchise in the way Society never became. It’s a damn disturbing one too.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its highly questionable DVD-mate Spontaneous Combustion (1990), and last week’s celebration of minor scream queen Heidi Kozak.

-Brandon Ledet

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