Dir/Writer: Mitchell Lichtenstein. 87 minutes. US

Writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein's, Teeth could have been just another bloody gross-out horror comedy with a gimmick - a teen virgin discovers she has a toothed vagina. But the sexuality angle, as well as the luminous presence and naturalistic performance of Jess Weixler as that girl, raises the film into something potentially appealing for more daring independent-film lovers, although it definitely is bloody and gross at times, although not sexually explicit.

The film was taken seriously enough by the Sundance Film Festival to get into the prestigious (American) Dramatic Film Competition, and Weixler won a Special Jury Prize for her acting. It is also in Berlin's Panorama section.

It does have satiric intentions. in a weird way, the plot mimics mythological aspects of The Lord of the Rings. Lichtenstein, a seasoned actor, is the son of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and respects both gender-studies author Camille Paglia and John Waters.

Acquired jointly by The Weinstein Company and Lionsgate Films at Sundance, Teeth's first test will be to get through the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board (and foreign censors) without being totally, well, castrated. If so, it might perform like some of Lionsgate's other stylized but violent horror movies, such as Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects, which grossed $17m in the U.S. and $19m worldwide.

It's too outre to be as big as Carrie or Heathers, similar high-school revenge flicks, but there is a chance its girls-eye view of a boys' world could make it an alternative-culture classic along the lines of Rock 'n' Roll High School.

However the gonzo close-ups, such as a dog eating a cut-off male appendage, won't help that quest. But fans of John Waters' early movies should like the latter.

Dawn (Weixler) is a naively religious, attractive high-schooler who lectures classmates on the importance of abstinence - 'it's a gift, not a handout' is her motto - and of getting a wedding ring from a boy to prove his intentions.

But at home she's both afraid of and attracted to her own unexplored body's sexual yearnings. When a boy tries to take advantage of her at a swimming hole, they both discover her horrific inner secret -much to his regret.

As other males - including an ob-gyn (Josh Pais) in a nastily squirming scene - discover the same thing, Dawn slowly learns to use her 'gift' to appropriate effect, including a final confrontation with a sadistic, satanic-looking older stepbrother (John Hensley) who keeps a caged Rottweiler near his bed.

Lichtenstein as a director shows a sure hand at pacing and, with production designer Paul Avery's help, creates a suburban world that looks both real and is full of symbolic, often-clashing holes and perpendicular objects. For instance, Dawn's home is near nuclear-power cooling stations. There also are references to old sci-fi movies, including clips from Gorgon and The Black Scorpion.

But as a writer he has trouble with plotting. He repeats his confrontational scenarios too often and can't decide when to treat Dawn's predicament seriously and when to just forget his characters' humanity and go yet again for what the audience is dreading/expecting.

But Weixler infuses Dawn with a heartrendingly wondrous fragility, reflected in her soft yet steely eyes, her dreamy smile and her easy, giggly way of being open about her feelings. She makes one scene involving safe sexual foreplay truly erotic when she seduces the viewer into feeling her pleasure. She also makes Dawn's anger at betrayal terrifying. A relative newcomer to film who has done TV soap-opera work, she's sure to be in demand after this.

Shot in 35-millimeter, Wolfgang Held's cinematography is clear and colourful - maybe too clear at times, given the nature of some of the close-ups. Particularly effective is the offbeat score by Robert Miller, which has a soft side involving flutes and an ominous orchestral dimension when needed. And Doug Field's prosthetic effects are very convincing.

Production company
Teeth LLC

Worldwide distribution
Lionsgate/The Weinstein Company

Joyce M Pierpoline
Mitchell Lichtenstein

Main cast
Jess Weixler
John Hensley
Josh Pais
Hale Appleman
Ashley Springer