Sometimes people disagree about what makes for a horror film. As far as I’m concerned, the definitive feature of the genre is that it deals with frightening transgressions of nature and of morality. Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth is horror that situates itself purely in terms of this defining characteristic. The horror is not in the surprises, as the film offers few ultimately, and it’s not in traditional scares. The horror is all in the transgression promised in the premise. The trailer below will cue you in to the premise sufficiently enough that I need not waste words or risk spoilers by going into it myself.
Teeth is pitch black horror comedy. The tone of the film borders on cartoonish at times and its funny moments are almost always its absolutely grotesque ones. The gore is not frequent or gratuitous but it is as transgressively scandalous and perverse as promised. I am not at all one to watch horror films to see gore for gore’s sake. Yet the horror genre at its best provides incredible opportunities for shrewd commentaries and visceral meditations on all sorts of themes and in service of such themes, I am probably as interested in gore as the most gratuitous gorehound. And Teeth delivers thematically with a fascinating synthesis of narratives and myths related to sexuality—ancient myths, Freudian myths, contemporary evangelical Christian purity myths, female empowerment myths, evolutionary stories, and all-too-familiar and real rape narratives are all interwoven with each other in a remarkably coherent and, to me, intellectually stimulating way. I had a good time sifting through the ways that these disparate and sometimes competing narratives found so many elemental features eerily in common with each other and how they also fundamentally diverged and created fundamental contrasts by the end.
Fundamentally, what becomes so interesting with this particular horror film is the way it throws into question what is nature and what is transgression? Is puberty’s sexual awakening the end of the age of purity or is it the return to nature lost to trauma and repression until that point? Are these teeth a transgression of nature or are they an evolutionary gift for adaptation? Is female empowerment itself an overturning of nature or an adaptation for advancement of women (and the species itself)? Do our traditional myths put us at odds with nature? Is the point of the film to affirm the more modern stories of physical, personal, and social evolution? Are these vehicles towards a strengthened nature that overturns the patriarchy, dogmatism, and religious fundamentalism that traditionally have claimed to be true to nature but have only functioned through a fundamentally anti-natural tyranny, as Nietzsche would argue?
So, all in all, Teeth is a horror film in the most elemental way, manifoldly transgressively playing off primal fears, gallows humor, and vengeance fantasies in order to give life to and put in tension some of the most enduring and some of the newest myths and narratives that our culture uses to cope with, understand, and control the primal forces of sexual desire.
As to form, the acting is uneven and the pacing is a little overly drawn out frequently. And the music stands out very well. Robert Miller’s score is excitingly evocative of Danny Elfman, in particular the Beetlejuice score in places. In other words, the score knows how to do dark, wry horror comedy.
Your Friends and Neighbors
Neil LaBute’s film Your Friends and Neighbors is pretty much what I expected and desired from the director of In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things, The Wicker Man, and Nurse Betty: It’s a film in which irredeemably cruel, selfish, and sexually despairing narcissists rip themselves and each other apart. Unlike Teeth, which plays on mythic horrors and familiar narratives in exploring humanity’s uneasy relationship with sex, Your Friends and Neighbors is one of a seemingly endless line of films that drags sex down from the realm of ideals and myths and through the vulgar bedrooms of your idiosyncratically twisted friends and neighbors. The more serious films I watch, the more it becomes clear that cinema from all over the world has been for decades now chronicling sexual dysfunction and shades of particularity of experience in a nearly encyclopedic fashion.
And Your Friends and Neighbors is a fascinating watch if you’re of the temperament to enjoy unvarnished exposure of human weakness, narcissism, aggressiveness, and passive aggressiveness, and if you’d like to add to your mental catalogue of nuances of idiosyncratic sexual despair. I greatly enjoy such films that plumb unpleasant truths and dissect in detail human cruelty, despair, and power dialectics with some dark humor. So I loved this film.
The performances were also uniformly superb. Ben Stiller vanishes into his serious role astonishingly well, Jason Patric’s portrayal of possibly the most repulsively thoroughly sketched mysoginist I’ve ever seen on screen is perfectly sickening. And Catherine Keener has a scene towards the end of the film that just blew me away. I never understood all the hubbub around her performance in Capote, but she deserved an Oscar either for 1998’s Your Friends and Neighbors or 1999’s Being John Malkovich, both for vivid portrayals of icy narcissists , callously indifferent to the attention of her admirers.