Recurring Nightmares is a column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories.
By Jonathan Bygraves
In a rare passage of levity some two-thirds into George A. Romero’s otherwise downbeat social-realist vampire tale Martin (1978), the eponymous young protagonist finally ‘reveals’ his secret to his suspicious granduncle Tateh. Martin emerges from the shadows of night in full bloodsucker garb – the cloak, the pallid face – and at last bares those gleaming fangs, immediately sending Tateh reaching for his rosary. But the old man is being made a fool of: Martin dismissively spits to the ground what turns out to be a novelty oral prop, derisively quipping, “it’s just a costume”.
Such a play on familiar iconography illustrates Romero’s revisionist intent to re-purpose the vampiric for the everyday. It also serves to highlight how teeth are such a familiar signifier of malignant forces in fiction. These are defining attributes not just for vampires but werewolves, cannibals and sundry other extra-human or animal-like monsters. Teeth are so inextricably linked to fearsomeness that monstrous antagonists often take their names from their dental characteristics: Chatterer in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), Saw Tooth in Wrong Turn (2003) and providing the title, at least, of a certain killer shark movie franchise. Teeth also feature prominently as a symbol of the Other in fairy tales: consider that Little Red Riding Hood’s final – and most telling – observation of the Big Bad Wolf before she is ingested is an oral one.
Teeth have proved a handy signifier in terms of human characters too: think of Richard Kiel’s metal-mouthed henchman Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), whose steeled dentition reflects his apparent physical invulnerability, or Austin Powers’ overbite, as much a visual pun on perceived poor orthodontic standards east of the Atlantic as a goofy character quirk. Brad Pitt went as far as having his Hollywood smile surgically altered for Fight Club (1999), insistent that chipped incisors were a key indicator of Tyler Durden’s psychological make-up. Indeed, the very term ‘Hollywood smile’ implies that perfect pearly-whites as a physical ideal is a notion fostered by the cinema itself.
It has not always been thus: deliberate tooth blackening was a fashionable practice among high-ranking aristocrats in Japan up until the Meiji period, and in Victorian England decaying teeth were a sign of affluence, representing the ability to purchase sugar and confectioneries. Today, however, dental decay is more likely an indicator of slovenliness or poverty. In cinematic terms, so too does it become a signifier of ‘otherness': as Carol Clover notes in Men Women and Chainsaws, bad teeth play a prominent role in the rape-revenge cycle of films of the 1970s initiated by John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), a film whose antagonists’ famously malformed mouths are such abiding pop culture icons that fancy dress shops are likely still to carry copycat hillbilly teeth as part of their stock range. Indeed, within the film itself, bad teeth (or indeed the absence of) are such a defining characteristic that Ed Gentry (Jon Voight) is unable to identify his assailant after discovering he may have popped his dentures in.
Deliverance uses dental deficiency as a signifier of the divide between the men from the city and those from the country. This a motif rooted as much in class division as much as geographical or moral, and is used similarly in Wes Craven’s own backwoods horror The Hills Have Eyes (1977). In its economical opening minutes, the film sets up a similar dynamic, introducing the viewer to the wholesome Carter clan and the ragged, near-feral Ruby (Janus Blythe), thickly laying on the contrasts between the all-American family and their cannibalistic counterparts. Once again, this is emphasised by dental disparity: the Carters’ gleaming, perfectly-aligned gnashers against Ruby’s decay-ridden mouth and, later on, her brother Mars’ (Lance Gordon) fang-like front teeth.
While Craven’s film is using the same signifier, there is a further sub-dynamic within: while Mars is more straightforwardly villainous, Ruby is presented as an abused victim of her patriarchal family, and ultimately afforded a redemptive arc. In this case bad teeth are more purely an expression of economic difference than moral squalor. Craven’s previous film The Last House on the Left (1974) had also featured a character with bad teeth who emerges as more wronged than wrong-doer: Junior (Marc Sheffler), son of Krug Stillo (David A. Hess), is also victim of his domineering patriarch – who has hooked him on heroin as a means of control – and though still an accessory to the crimes of his cohorts, is presented as a considerably more sympathetic character.
Whereas The Hills Have Eyes uses animal imagery as a means to align its cannibal family with untamed wilderness, The Last House on the Left uses it to illustrate the power dynamic between father and son: when Junior playfully imitates the sound of a frog, it metaphorically underlines his status relative to Krug as an unthreatening pet: domesticated, servile, less than human. When Krug later imagines his teeth being knocked out by one of his victim’s vengeful parents, the dental symbolism implies not just excruciating pain but a fear of the loss of power and identity. As such, teeth falling out is not just a common anxiety dream, but a body horror trope in the likes of The Fly (1986), District 9 (2009) and even Moon (2009), representing a transformation into something ‘Other’.
As a re-telling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) (in which, like The Hills Have Eyes, there is direct class parallel between the antagonists and a wild, near-feral sister figure) there is a traceable link from The Last House on the Left back to pastoral folklore, and further. Bergman’s film was itself based on a 13th Century Swedish ballad, and also prompts a Biblical resonance. The Virgin Spring‘s dialectic is not merely class-based but religious too, in the form of a conflict between the Nordic and the Christian. In addressing the question of the morality of vengeance, the revenge film’s dental imagery covertly calls to mind Leviticus‘ doctrine of “a tooth for a tooth”.
Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine offers another deeper psychological underpinning of odontophobia, namely the myth of the vagina dentata and male castration anxiety. Creed cites the famous poster for Jaws (1975) as a metaphorical illustration of this (woman on the water’s surface, giant teeth hidden below), and it is presented very literally in The Last House on the Left when Krug’s penis is bitten off during the act of fellatio. In Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2009), the myth is ultimately repurposed as a possible symbol of female empowerment.
Teeth, then, continue to be a potent symbol of unconscious anxieties as well as a shorthand for manifold attributes: fearsomeness, animal-like qualities, the culturally alien, the morally suspect. One might note the perfectly aligned orthodontistry of the eponymous protagonists in Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010), which, for all of its hillbilly horror revisionism, can’t quite bring itself to give its would-be romantic leads this one physical attribute that the cultural stereotype calls for. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then – on film at least – bad teeth might still be considered to be said soul’s hazardously-splintered front door frame.
Contributor Jonathan Bygraves can be followed on Twitter @iambags and runs the blog Serene Velocity.