Mumblegore is a relatively new term that has blossomed with the low budget, yet character-driven, indie horror films that have been released in the past decade. It was born out of the Mumblecore genre, introduced in 2002 with films such as Funny HA HA (2002) by Andrew Bujalski and Puffy Chair (2005) by the Duplass Brothers.
Mumblegore takes that genre into the realm of horror, with films such as You’re Next (2011), The Sacrament (2013), and V/H/S (2012) as prime examples. Due to lower budgets and almost no studio pressure, these films are much more experimental. A few directors and writers have been credited with the birth and rise of this strange subgenre. Adam Wingard (You’re Next, V/H/S), Joe Swanberg (V/H/S), and Ti West (House of the Devil) are just a few of the people working to create strange yet terrifying stories that push the boundaries of horror.
I want to expand the definition, which is my goal with this column. I will try to venture outside of those well-known directors and scour the corners of the Internet to expand the idea of Mumblegore.
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“[Teeth] is truly more than its shock value. It is a rape-revenge tale reimagined with a small budget.”
Growing up with even the smallest involvement in the Catholic church meant I had an obsession with virginity. I didn’t even make it to Confirmation, but there were still many formative years spent kneeling on uncomfortable wooden benches and listening to a priest tell me how damned my immortal soul could be if I didn’t follow their rules. While I never took the Word Of God too seriously, questions about sex gnawed at the back of my brain. Who would I lose it to? Would I wait until marriage? Was it bad that I had sexual urges? These thoughts flitted through my young mind and they strengthened with each passing year. Everyone loves a good dose of Catholic guilt. I wanted to be what I thought it meant to be a Good Girl but part of me wanted so badly to reject that and give in to my most base desires. As I was grappling with the concept of virginity, I stumbled upon Mitchell Lichenstein’s 2008 movie, Teeth.
Teeth changed my life. I showed it to everyone who would stomach it. I loved to show it to boys and watch them squirm. I loved to press play and watch Dawn’s (Jess Weixler, IT: Chapter Two) transformation from virginal angel to mature avenger. It was more than a movie to me. It was the way I learned that virginity is a concept constructed to shame women and control us into ignoring sexual desire. It was also how I learned that all men ever seem to want is sex, and they will do anything to get it. What at first started as a fun way to shock boys became a crucial tool in learning about my own identity and how to protect myself from the predatory actions of men.
Teeth follows Dawn, a teenager in a small town who has dedicated herself to chastity. She is the image of Catholic perfection and is the apple of her parents’ eyes. However, when her boyfriend Tobey (Hale Appleman, The Magicians) tries to rape her, she discovers she has vagina dentata, or, a toothed vagina. She cuts off his penis and she believes she’s a monster. However, she begins to learn how to control it and uses her newfound talent to take revenge against the men who manipulate her.
The premise alone would make anyone guffaw or at least chuckle. It sounds like a ridiculous comedy made to scare men away from wanton women. But it is truly more than its shock value. It is a rape-revenge tale reimagined with a small budget. This is not a sexualized woman getting punished; this is a teenager who has shaped her entire identity on purity and yet she is still taken advantage of by the men who desire her. There is no way for a woman to protect herself from the ravenous sexual appetites of predators except with the very thing they crave. Vagina dentata is not just something to terrify men. It is a weapon.
“After years of abuse, Dawn is finally able to take her revenge, not only because of vagina dentata but because of the empowerment she has found in having control over her sexuality.“
The first time Dawn discovers her toothed vagina is the first time she has sex. But this is not just some silly teenage accident. This is an act of self-defense against sexual assault. However, many descriptions of the film make this moment seem consensual. Take this description:
“Dawn is an active member of her high-school chastity club but, when she meets Tobey, nature takes its course, and the pair answer the call. They suddenly learn she is a living example of the vagina dentata myth, when the encounter takes a grisly turn.”
While making their sex seem consensual, this description makes her “affliction” seem uncontrollable. It makes Dawn a monster who has no control over her body and it is known that the unruly female body is public enemy number one in horror. However, what actually happens in the scene is Tobey forcing himself onto Dawn. She repeatedly tells him no, to get off, to stop. Then, after knocking her unconscious, he penetrates her. Dawn is raped by Tobey and her body immediately gets revenge. She literally bites his dick off to stop him from forcibly violating her. Importantly, at this moment, Dawn has no control over her vagina. It is a knee-jerk reaction. Her body quickly acknowledging that something is wrong. They both shriek in fear as they realize what has happened to Tobey; his dick lies on the floor, gnawed on by a crab.
Over the course of the film, Dawn gains increasingly more control over her body and her ability to activate her vagina dentata. She castrates several men and removes a few fingers along the way, but it leads up to her ultimate act of revenge. Her final sexual encounter is a completely meditated and controlled act of violence to enact vengeance on her creepy stepbrother who has lusted after her for most of their lives. He tried to assault her as a child, he is cruel to his girlfriend, and hates everyone he meets. She decides to use his desire against him and seduces him. After years of abuse, Dawn is finally able to take her revenge, not only because of vagina dentata but because of the empowerment she has found in having control over her sexuality. As she ejects his mangled penis on to the carpet, she has taken back the power. Teeth is not just about emasculating a man; it is above removing the thing that makes them superior to women. It is about taking away their weapon.
While lines such as “I haven’t jerked off since Easter” make Teeth seem like a comedy, it is undoubtedly a rape-revenge film about how the female body adapts to a world of abuse. It is body horror meets coming-of-age tale that is a cautionary tale about sex. But it is not the warning to men that many may see. This is not about telling men to beware of sexually-active women. It is instead a cautionary tale warning women about the unrelenting desire of men. Teeth is about changing the power dynamics and reminding men that they are not always the ones in control.
“[Teeth] is undoubtedly a rape-revenge film about how the female body adapts to a world of abuse.”