Teeth (2007, dir. Michell Lichtenstein) review

In a modest house, lying in the shadow of two large smoke stacks, a young woman grows teeth in her vagina. Writer/director Michell Lichtenstein forges a fast, fun horror film with some bite, but struggles to add any penetrating insight to the issues it opens up. 

Dawn (Jess Weixler) belongs to a Christian group which preaches sexual abstinence before marriage at high school. Unknown to the world, she has a physiological condition called vagina dentata. Most days she is harassed and ridiculed by the pot-smoking pupils who fail to see the point in not having sex. Dawn’s new boyfriend also doubts his commitment to celibacy. 

Teeth never goes all the way and shows us the titular fangs, but we see the effects. Dawn’s troubled brother gets his finger sliced in the paddling pool when they’re children. It’s not long before someone loses some fingers and, if you don’t wish to see a severed penis, you may want to cross your legs and look away. 

Lichenstein constructs a situation which demands we see some promised toothy action, even though Dawn has vowed to remain chaste. Problematically, this requires Dawn to be violated for the film to get its way.

There aren’t many men in Dawn’s life who don’t have an unhealthy attitude to sex. An unethical gynaecologist seems perfectly happy to vigorously examine her without another woman present. Dawn’s brother noisily bangs his girlfriend while the family sit and listen. And at school, she befriends one boy, then another, who exploit her. Lichenstein mines some uncomfortable and blackly comic scenes from this.

Teeth juggles tension and humour, with mildly successful digs at Young Christians, corporate pollution and youth culture. It is solidly directed and very well played even when the story is running out of steam. It seems lazy writing to make Dawn so fervent about sex and sin when her own sexual organs are so demonic. But what sits most uncomfortably is when Dawn allows herself to have sex with someone she doesn’t want to in order to deliver a forced emasculation. The place that Dawn finds herself by the end of the film seems a betrayal of the character.

The local power-plant and it’s smoke-stacks sit proudly in every exterior shot of the house, belching out greasy, black smoke, as though to suggest a cause for events. In truth, the cause is more prosaic. Someone wanted to make a film about a toothed vagina and, while not without some bloody pleasures and slippery horror, failed to make it all quite hang together.


Attack on Titan (進撃の巨人 Shingeki no Kyojin) television review

Attack on Titan is an animated television series adapted from a popular Japanese comic. It’s a thoroughly unhealthy mash-up of Game of Thrones, Full Metal Jacket, Night of the Living Dead, Spiderman and Jack and the Beanstalk. It has a terrifying disregard for the lives of its characters. It features unexpected twists, death, destruction and dizzyingly choreographed action sequences. And it has one of the catchiest, most bombastic, title sequences you’ll ever see.

In a land of castles and feudalism, all citizens live within a heavily walled city. The thick wall keeps out the ‘Titans’, 15 metre, naked, sexless, gormless freaks who live to chase and eat humans. The majority of the Titans have a European/American appearance. It’s not hard to see Attack on Titan as a metaphor for “bland” Western culture invading Japan.

One sunny day, a new titan appears. At 100 metres, he stands higher than the wall. When he rudely breaches it, the city finds it’s streets overrun with mindless titans, scooping up and devouring the population.

The military’s response to the apocalypse is to rally an army of swordsmen equipped with “3D Maneuver Gear”. They have the ability to fire cables which spear nearby buildings, allowing them to swing up high enough to deliver a killing blow to the Titan’s neck. It sounds fun, looks impressive, but felling a Titan is difficult. Many soldiers die in the process, every fight infused with grim urgency.

Twists and revelations soon pile-up, changing the war entirely. Despite an eventful story and crazy ideas, viewers will find their pleasure curtailed by pacing issues. While some of the story zips along, on a dime it will turn a corner into lengthy internal monologue, killing the tension. The animation veers between highly detailed energy and simple static images. These mark the points that the production team found their time and budget stretched. At its best, the imagination on display is frightening and beautiful.

Character design is strong, with Eren Yaeger, Mikasa Ackerman and Levi particularly worth looking out for. In fact Eren and Mikasa (the main characters) have a back-story so complex and compelling, there’s enough material for several spin-offs. It’s their recruitment into the corps which initially drives the story, but a large supporting cast features several brilliant personalities who zing off the screen.

Attack on Titan is a surprising, nail-biting and only occasionally frustrating show. It skews the well-trodden zombie format into something on a far grander scale. It ratchets up the melodrama to equally dizzying heights and represents a high point for serial television animation.


House of Whipcord review (1974, dir. Pete Walker)

Sounds like a bit of cheeky, kinky titillation, doesn't it? A film about modern, fun-loving, women who are rounded up, sent to a correctional facility and then whipped for being ever-so naughty.

House of Whipcord isn’t even a bit fun or carefree, though. Rather than finding themselves in a grand, camp, gothic dungeon, our heroines are interned in a bare, cold institution on a rainy moor. They are stripped of clothes and jewellery, force to wear a sackcloth and forbidden to talk by the impressively dour women who watch over all.

The governess and wardens are living their dream. And their dream is of an England when the penalty for waywardness was swift and severe. Girls committing insurrection find themselves on the end of the lash. The damage inflicted is ugly and shocking. If the girl still refuses to mend her ways then she finds herself sentenced to death by hanging. A cruel and unjust affair which tips the mood of the film into a very dark and claustrophobic place.

The girls are sentenced by one of only two men to be found in this matriarchy. A doddering old judge guided by the venomous whispers of the chief matron. Then there is the matron’s son, Mark E. Desade (I know! You don't need me explain it, you're clever enough). He goes to parties, finds progressive, liberated young ladies and seduces them with his cold, handsome, charms. Shortly after they find themselves in the House of Whipcord.

Plenty of ‘women in prison’ film tropes of are here, but realised in brutal ways. A humiliating stripping, an evil lesbian warden and a precarious escape. Pete Walker is fascinating exploitation director with no agenda other than to "create a bit of mischief", as he puts it. Here he directs with confidence, inky black humour, chilling detachment and little flair. 

The performances range from weak to hammy but are always fascinating and eccentric. The dark interiors and cloudy exteriors offer little in the way of hope or light and the film paints a terrifying picture of what the world would look like if rabid conservatives got their way with the penal system.

House of Whipcord is a cautionary tale of the older generation’s fear of young, successful, sexually-free women and the rampant misogyny and hypocrisy which will follow.


Aguirre, Wrath of God (restored version) review

You step off the dilapidated coach, warm trade-winds kicking at the fedora you haggled for at the village market, and into your “resplendent” holiday villa-complex. Then you discover the brochure hadn’t been entirely truthful. You were promised El Dorado, the Mysterious City of Gold, and instead you got El Dorado, the feeble and short-lived BBC soap-opera. What you thought was a weather-beaten sign pointing a road to a quaint, abandoned pueblo turned out to be a village of sadistic, godless cannibals.

Welcome to the jungle! Or, more accurately, the land around Machu Picchu, where Aguirre, Wrath of God was shot on stolen cameras and a wing and a prayer. Director Werner Herzog corralled a cast and crew of 450 people to make a terrifying trip down eroded Inca steps, the film’s opening shot. Fighting vertigo and extreme rain, the filmmakers managed to transport people, animals and equipment into a hostile rainforest to film a sloppy, uneven cinematic classic.

Based on the little knowledge Herzog had of real-life adventurer Lope de Aguirre, the film traces the journey of a band of Spanish conquistadors travelling down the Amazon in search of the fabled riches of El Dorado. While searching, their infighting and ill-preparedness threatens to undo all of them.

Something is awry in Aguirre. The pacing of is erratic, the performances uneven and the characterisation inconsistent. Yet it is a unique and compelling film. The brooding hulk of Klaus Kinski gives us an arresting and unpredictable soul who stubbornly believes he is right when all falls to pieces around him. Everyone, even Kinski, play second fiddle to the land that hates them so. It is primordial and awesomely beautiful and the camera lingers long enough to make you love and fear it in equal measure.

Its hard to work out if some of the actors have been told to act bored and unhappy or whether they really just don’t want to be miles from anywhere with a film crew and a metric ton of tropical diseases. Either way Aguirre is a awash with disinterested faces and muddled motives. The film fails to give us a cohesive narrative, thanks to Herzog’s insistence on turning up in the jungle and constructing a film on the fly. Look again though and you realise it doesn’t matter. Aguirre is a glorious mess, a fascinating, filthy jumble of thwarted ambition, angry nature and godless devils who strike indiscriminately from the trees. Its not just the local “savages” who threaten the “good’ Christians looking for El Dorado either. The making of the film is just as tumultuous, with Kinski turning up ready for a full jungle experience then demanding a hotel away from everyone else when faced with insects, humidity and rain. In his time on set he raged and sulked and demanded that crew be fired for looking at him wrong. Herzog even threatened to put a bullet in his head when Kinski was prepared to leave the film on a boat. After that he was a more subdued presence on set.

Aguirre is by not an easy film to watch. It gives us extras who stare at the camera, scenes that go on too long, and then on further to nowhere. Kinski seems to be in a different film to the other actors, such is the gap between his performance and thiers. Herzog throws incongruous moments of slapstick comedy into the mix too. The bizarre lasts words of a speared man or the horse that stares inscrutably back at the disintegrating raft it has just been pushed off. Its hard not to marvel at the hubris of the greedy conquistadors facing deadly currents and mounting insanity. Aguirre is a beautiful, repellent masterpiece and proof that Herzog is a director of boldness and ambition.

Aguirre, Wrath of God has been restored and opens a season of Werner Herzog’s films at the BFI in London on 7th June