FEATURE: Shocktober - Teeth

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here. Minor spoilers ahead!

Probably my most diverse shift in tone yet, my next film in the 31 Days of Horror is Teeth, a blackly comic and gory delight that couldn't be further away from the old school chills of The Omen. Teeth follows Dawn (Jess Weixler), a purity pledge who wears her virginity quite literally around her finger and refuses to have sex until she is married. However, a close encounter with a fellow pledge, one who is considerably less committed than she is, leads to a discovery about her body. She has vagina dentata, or in layman's terms teeth in her vagina, which act as a defence mechanism when she is attacked against her will.

One of the most recurrent themes throughout literature and film, no matter the genre or form, is that vaginas are scary. This is King Lear talking about his daughters: 'Down from the waist they are centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends'. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulfurous pit— burning, scalding, stench, consumption!' You only have to look at Alien's facehugger from below to see that it's basically a vagina with legs and a tail (though with the added penetration fear of the impregnation as well).

Vagina dentata is one such example of scary vaginas; the tales of vaginas with teeth acted as a rape prevention technique, convincing men that if they were to force themselves on their female counterparts, they may come away somewhat lessened. Ahem. It's still a pervasive idea. Even the word vagina itself has been considered somewhat controversial when an American politician was chastised for using the term in one of her speeches. Ignoring the ridiculous nature of that because it's a biological term, female genitalia is still the source of much anxiety within both our cultural outputs and society in general.

Teeth gloriously sends up the idea of the scary vagina, not only in its toothy central concept, but in the way it explores the idea of sex education in schools. In what is probably its best scene, a biology class is taught about the respective male and female genitalia. There's a full penis diagram and it's gone through in what appears to be great detail. Then, they move on to (whisper it) the vagina... And it's covered by a big gold sticker. The teacher can barely even say the word let alone educate people about its functions. It's a brilliant microcosm of the way in which women's bodies are treated; they're either way too on display and much be judged at all costs, or entirely hidden from the world.

The film also uses its high school setting to play nicely on some of the location's usual beats. There's the tentative romance, the bullyish older brother, the guys who made a bet about who could sleep with a girl first, but Dawn gets her revenge in a way her teen comedy counterparts never do. She doesn't end up with the guy she fancies or convert her stepbrother and eventual lover into the kind of people you want to spend time with. Nope. She chops their penises off with her vagina. It's all kind of awesome, particularly how the film handles her arc from doing so accidentally, to using it to get her revenge on the men that treat her badly.

Teeth's feminist sensibilities and its empowerment of its central character immediately recalls American Mary to mind in that both characters go through a traumatic sexual experience which leads them to taking control of their own body and other people's. Both Dawn and Mary go through their own personal make-up process, a mask that allows them to take this control. They are also brilliant examples of the seemingly virtuous heroine becoming something considerably more monstrous as a reaction to the way they are treated by the men around them.

Teeth is a lot of fun and whilst I suspect it's scarier to those in possession of penises, the gore is effectively used and there's an encounter with a dog that just makes your skin crawl. Plus, it adds to the considerable array of scary vaginas in popular culture, but in a way that's really quite satisfying.

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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