No Sleep October: The Dentist

So many injustices have occurred throughout our nation’s recent history that it’s easy to overlook some supposedly lesser evils. One such atrocity is the Rotten Tomatoes score for the queasy, orally fixated slasher The Dentist. Now, I would never want to affiliate myself with the toxic DC fan base that insists Marvel pays critics for positive reviews, but clearly sinister forces conspired in 1996 to condemn The Dentist with an egregious 0% rating. There’s simply no other logical reason to explain the callous dismissal of this glorious piece of VHS trash and its superior sequel. It’s like The Stepfather, except with way more scenes of people’s mouths getting decimated by dental tools.

Corbin Bernsen (Major League) plays the titular dentist, Dr. Alan Feinstone, and while the film is supposed to follow the trajectory of his descent into lunacy and murder, it’s immediately obvious that he’s already lost it entirely. “I had a beautiful wife, a beautiful home. But underneath that smooth, white surface, there was the stench of decay,” he snarls in an early voiceover. Get used to those tooth puns, because this movie is full of ‘em. Feinstone is obsessed with removing the figurative rot out of others around him, which he begins to find everywhere. In a scene that looks like it was shot for a ’90s Skinemax ad, he even discovers his wife blowing their brawny pool boy, and realizes that though her exterior may be out-and-out flawless, she suffers from gingivitis of the soul.  

Director Brian Yuzna uses every dopey camera trick in the book with his depiction of Feinstone’s mental deterioration. Extreme close-ups reveal each porous detail of the dentist’s sweaty, anguished face while fish-eye lenses tilt and whirl in gonzo POV shots as he hallucinates rotting teeth in the mouths of his unfortunate patients. Bernsen, in full berserker mode, bolsters those techniques by stammering and screaming his way toward a psychotic breakdown. There isn’t much nuance to the performance itself, but there’s a giddy lack of restraint in the delivery of lines like, “My second opinion … is extract!” to a victim.

Yuzna, a protege of slapstick-gorehound Stuart Gordon (a co-writer here), plays everything big, broad and silly. There’s a low-budget wispiness in the film’s soft lighting that gives The Dentist an air of soap-opera cheese that pairs nicely with Bernsen’s mania. Gordon was originally attached to direct, and Yuzna’s sensibilities fall rather close in line with how Gordon’s final product might have turned out. Any satire present is of the garden-variety “sinister-underbelly-of-suburbia” kind, and besides, what Yuzna is really primed on showing audiences is just how many different ways someone’s mouth can be mangled beyond recognition.

The Dentist feels like a gaudy Lifetime movie making an abrupt turn into straight-up torture porn, albeit more focused on tooth trauma. Just about every tool in the dentist’s office is used to appalling effect. Jaws are torn wide open, tongues are removed, nerves are drilled into, ligaments are torn and teeth are ground to powder. It’s deeply upsetting, of course, but it’s never serious for a moment; Yuzna and Bernsen consistently remind you it’s all a goofy grossout gag.

The plot is essentially a cheapo riff on 1987’s The Stepfather, involving the friends and family of a wholesome-seeming suburban guy learning he’s basically Satan. For the follow-up, The Dentist 2: Brace Yourself (the greatest film title of all time), Yuzna naturally just ripped off the plot of The Stepfather II, with Feinstone assuming a false identity in a new idyllic town where he can start over. Of course, 30 minutes in and he’s already stabbing Clint Howard to death and seething, “You just couldn’t have your toothache somewhere else, could ya?”

Yes, the sequel’s narrative is almost beat-for-beat identical to the original, yet it doubles down on the pleasures of the first outing: lurid melodrama, a batshit Bernsen and disgusting mouth prosthetics. The actor is even more unhinged from the get-go here, and the poor, stupid townsfolk immediately trust him despite his alarming behavior. His new flame doesn’t seem to find anything strange that he has a meltdown over “losing a cap” on their first date. Nope, everything checks out!

Plenty of schlocky, straight-to-video titles from past decades have been championed by the horror community and re-released with nifty artwork and packaging. The Dentist and its sequel came and went with little recognition or lasting fanfare. If this love letter to Dr. Feinstone’s tragic saga can convince one person to check these flicks out, then I have done my good deed for the Halloween season.

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For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.

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NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018

 

Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma

Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel

The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull

FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey

Cat People (1942) — Aly Caviness

The Child’s Play Series — Salem

The Shining (1980) — Dave Gutierrez

Hellroller — Richard Propes

Poltergeist III — Greg Lindberg

Scream — Heather Knight

The Witch — Rick Dossey

The Frankenstein Cycle — Lou Harry

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors — Sam Watermeier

The Fog (1980) — Joe Shearer

Eastern Horrors — Alex Holmes

Unfriended — Austin Lugar

Freaks (1932) — Alys Caviness-Gober

As Above, So Below — Jonathan Curole

The Beyond — Nick Rogers

The Halloween Franchise — Evan Dossey



Mitch Ringenberg has written about film in some capacity since his time at his high school newspaper. Nowadays, when he's not teaching middle school language arts, Mitch can be found in Bloomington, Indiana, ranting incoherently on Letterboxd, binge-reading and being insufferable about all things pop culture.


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