Tag Archives: jaws

Recurring Nightmares #3 | The Awful Tooth

Recurring Nightmares is a column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories. 

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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Blogalongabond – Moonraker: When Powers met Skywalker

Mocking a Bond film for its absurdity is like taking Picasso to task for being abstract; that’s the essence of their art. Albert R Broccoli’s spy series has provided plenty of guffaw-provoking moments down the years, however, 1979’s Moonraker remains the epitome of Bond silliness, throwing in a dash of cynicism and plenty of comic cheese to boot.

Moonraker’s predecessor, The Spy Who Loved Me, had promised us that Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only. By the time filming commenced, however, the world was in the grip of sci-fi fever in the wake of 1977’s Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Bond camp spotted a lucrative bandwagon. In Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel, Moonraker’s villain was a Nazi with a nuclear missile trained on London, but the film dispenses with all but his name (Hugo Drax), instead cramming in space shuttles, laser guns and Wookies (not really).

The cynicism of this alteration is apparent in the somewhat incoherent plot’s occasional similarities to the aforementioned sci-fi blockbusters; at one point we witness Bond turn his spaceship’s laser gun to manual in order to hit his target (presumably using “The Force”), while a laboratory’s entry keypad actually plays the chimes from Close Encounters’ alien craft.

We open with the usual pre-title sequence in which, apropos of nothing, Bond is turned upon by a gun-toting stewardess and thrown from his private plane without a parachute, an issue which causes our hero only mild inconvenience. We also discover that a space shuttle, loaned to Britain by the US, has been stolen. Quite why Britain would wish to borrow a space shuttle is unclear; perhaps the recently elected Thatcher government had plans for galactic conquest?

Drax himself is rendered instantly villainous by way of his ostentatious wealth, beard and German accent, which make his plan to commit genocide to pave the way for a master race seem somewhat like national stereotyping (the master race themselves look worryingly like the cast of the musical Hair). He instantly launches several extravagant attempts to kill 007, as ever passing up a number of perfectly decent opportunities to simply shoot him in the head. Instead, a series of loyal henchmen are quickly mopped up by Bond, turning one’s thoughts towards the brilliant Austin Powers skit about the effect on such henchmen’s families (not the only moment in the film that summons the ghost of Powers).

Among the henchmen is Jaws (another Spielberg reference?) who turns up to work for Drax, presumably recruited from the ‘intimidating heavy’ equivalent of Office Angels. Richard Kiel’s character had previously appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me, proving so inexplicably popular with children (perhaps this film’s true target demographic) that he was recalled for Moonraker and even rewarded with a girlfriend and Road to Damascus-style conversion. His sudden switch from the dark side is particularly hard to swallow and adds to the impression that this is more kiddie flick than spy thriller.

Roger Moore in Moonraker - "eyebrow-arching irony at its zenith"

One of the major criticisms of the film is its supposedly ‘comic’ approach, with Moore’s eyebrow-arching irony at its zenith. Certainly there is fun to be had, particularly as Bond is stalked by yet more potential assassins while cruising the canals of Venice; one scene involves a knife-throwing killer rising from a floating coffin, before Bond quickly returns him from whence he came. However, this is followed by a scene in which 007 outruns a speedboat in a motorised gondola, before taking it onto dry land for a drive through the Piazza San Marco. It’s more Benny Hill than Bond, and even features a ridiculous double-taking pigeon. Similarly, the use of music from other films to soundtrack key set pieces, such as The Magnificent Seven during a bizarre scene when Bond dresses as a cowboy, simply adds to the feeling that this is self-parody of the silliest kind.

There is some respite from the barrage of cheese, with occasional throwaway lines ranging from the Wildean (“Mr Bond. You return with all the inevitability of an unloved season”) to the Kenneth Williams-ean (“I believe he’s attempting re-entry, Sir”), but Moore’s oak-stiff delivery frequently seems more suited to the world of pantomime than international espionage.

As ever, there are babes in abundance, as our hero continues to ignore widely accepted sexual health advice. However, they are unmemorable in the extreme, with the exception of Corinne Dufour, who provides the film’s only genuinely dark moment when Drax has her pursued and eaten by a pack of dogs. Meanwhile, the name of scientist/CIA agent Holly Goodhead would provide Mike Myers with several films worth of mucky puns.

In this post-Bourne world, and in the light of Daniel Craig’s emotionally damaged, action-thug Bond, Moonraker seems camp and unbelievable. Equally ludicrous moments pop up throughout the Bond series, but this film’s attempt to stitch so many together, while self-consciously playing the ‘comedy’ card, leave it feeling retrospectively Powers-lite and very much of its moment. That it remained the highest grossing Bond film until 1995’s Goldeneye only goes to show how well Myers knew his audience when he launched his cash-cow parody on the world.

Blogalongabond is the ingenious brainchild of blogger The Incredible Suit.

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