I was a little apprehensive about returning to the coming-of-age horror comedy Teeth, even though I’ve been holding onto my DVD copy of the film for well over a decade. The appeal of a gory, supernatural rape revenge thriller about a teenage girl with teeth in her vagina just had an entirely different appeal to me in my early 20s than it does now, long after I’ve lost my taste for edgelord shock humor. The biggest shock of returning to the film, then, is that it actually holds up incredibly well – especially considering what you’d expect from a mid-00s Dimension Extreme title with that premise. That’s because the film pushes itself way past the single-joke gimmick most over-the-top, on-purpose schlock would settle for (think Aquaslash, WolfCop, Zombeavers,etc). It’s a wonderfully thoughtful, surprisingly sweet satire about the horrors of puritanical sex education in American high schools. Who knew? Or rather, who remembered?
Jess Weixler stars as Dawn, a naïve high school student whose growing attraction to her own sexuality is directly at odds with her Christian Evangelical abstinence training. While I remembered the film’s more over-the-top gore gags & the discomfort of the violence, I had completely forgotten how much of it is a Saved! style satire about regressive Evangelical sex “education”. While she’s encouraged to publicly promise to remain a virgin until marriage (going as far as to spread the good word about Promise Rings to her fellow schoolmates at class assemblies), she privately indulges in exploring her own body and yearns for physical contact with boys for the first time. Like with every puberty experience, her body violently betrays her in those early sexual awakenings, although admittedly on a larger, more absurdist scale than what most of us suffer. When she dares to explore her genitals, they bite back in warning. When boys impatiently force themselves onto her the results are even more horrific. The film itself is notably not sex-negative, though. If anything, it openly mocks the cultural sex negativity of high school textbooks censoring illustrations of human vulvas or Christian pop songs spreading harmful messages like “Love is worth waiting for”. Her vaginal mutation is just presented as a newfound superpower that has to be handled responsibly, which is a pretty decent metaphor for teenagers who are just learning about the pleasures & pitfalls of sexual activity – especially in a world with so many Conservative roadblocks deliberately preventing them from learning how to do things the right way.
I shouldn’t downplay how much of Teeth indulges in the edgelord button-pushing promised in its premise. Dawn does leave behind a bloody trail of severed fingers & penises that enter her boobytrapped vagina without her consent, an unavoidable aspect of the film that lands it firmly in the queasy subgenre of Rape Revenge Comedy. I just think it’s selling the movie short to remember it as a feature-length punchline where an abusive OBGYN nurses his fingerless hand while screaming “Vagina dentata! Vagina dentata!” purely for the audience’s amusement. There are plenty of gross-out gore gags and self-amused punchlines of that ilk in the movie (including a lot of onscreen peen for an R-rated American film), but there’s also thoughtful critique to be found elsewhere about the real-world evil of Abstinence Only sex education and young men’s dangerous obliviousness to the importance of active, enthusiastic consent. The vaginal teeth Dawn discovers in herself are presented as a kind of evolutionary growth that’s advantageous for her survival, both against obvious villains who consciously aim to assault her and against “Nice Guys” who are selfishly clueless & harmful in their societally reinforced relationship with their own macho sexuality. Finding humor in that abuse will likely, rightfully be an automatic turnoff for a lot of audiences, but it’s at least taking direct aim at the right satirical targets—both institutional and individual—not invoking easy moral panic over teen-girl sexuality.
If you can get past your discomfort with its depictions of onscreen sexual assault, Teeth is a shockingly invigorating entry in the Teen Girl Horror canon. It reminds me a lot of more frequently lauded films like Ginger Snaps, Carrie, and Jennifer’s Body, wherein a teen girl’s transformative experience with puberty unlocks both a supernatural horror and a supernatural power. In this case, the political points made in that long-running metaphor are a little crasser and more on the surface than in its cohorts, but it’s at least taking aim at a specific satirical target: America’s puritanical, actively harmful approach to teen sex education. I was tempted to dismiss it as a shock-comedy relic from my embarrassing edgelord past, but it very much deserves to be revisited and reevaluated as potential cult classic from that mostly disposable era. And hey, if it’s too genuinely icky to earn that kind of widespread appreciation, there’s always the more wholesome version of it lurking in Saved!.