The Dentist

THE DENTIST is a unique little horror movie about a couple of days where a guy’s life totally unravels. Dr. Alan Feinstone (Corbin Bernsen, TALES FROM THE HOOD) is an asshole from the word go – we see him berating his wife Brooke (Linda Hoffman, FACE/OFF) over a stain not coming out of one of his shirts, then forgiving her because she bought him expensive cuff links. When he catches her blowing the pool cleaner (Michael Stadvec, SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK… AGAIN, SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK… FOR MORE, SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK… TO APOLOGIZE BECAUSE THEY’VE REALLY CHANGED) he fantasizes about screaming at her and forcing her at gunpoint to bite down with her “perfect teeth.” Instead he doesn’t confront her and then completely loses his shit.

I like the messy, accidental piling up of events. There’s almost a true crime feel to it. He tries to sneak up on the homewrecker and shoot him, ends up instead shooting a neighbor’s dog that attacks him for trespassing. Ken Foree (FROM BEYOND) and Tony Noakes (BREAKAWAY) play the police detectives who circle around with the potential to catch him, but they’re investigating the killing of a pet, not a person. They’re investigating a weird, creepy thing, not knowing it’s more serious than that.

At the beginning he narrates the movie and claims to have been living a “perfect life” with Brooke, which is hard to believe since she’s cheating on him and he’s a fuckin weirdo who gets amped up saying things like “Once the decay gets started it can only lead to rot, filth, corruption.” He tries to just go to work and keep his shit together, but he can barely contain the inner maniac. It does a good job of depicting regular people living their regular lives and not knowing how to react to the way he’s behaving – telling themselves it must be okay.

When his co-worker Karen (Patty Toy, News Anchor #2, SPEED) walks in on him muttering “Keep it together” and shakily pawing through a drawer of pill bottles she gets her first hint this is gonna be a long shift. He imagines people saying mean things to him, sees the walls moving, fucks up and horribly injures a little boy’s mouth, then defends his fuckup by saying that the boy is spoiled. He keeps having to badly lie, punches and injects a co-worker, spaces out and pulls a gun on his most enthusiastic patient (Virginya Keehne, INVADERS FROM MARS, PUMP UP THE VOLUME, TICKS), tries to make sure nobody finds out about any of this.

The most upsetting of his psychotic on-the-job delusions is when he’s imagining an aggressive sexual encounter with his wife while he’s actually molesting a drugged patient. April Reign (Christa Sauls, Acapulco H.E.A.T.) is a wannabe actress with a Marilyn Monroe hairdo who quickly switches from isn’t-Hollywood-vapid? joke to sympathetic victim, and her sleazy-ish manager (Mark Ruffalo, WINDTALKERS) becomes heroic by busting in and getting her out of there.

There’s a sort of crazy-day-on-the-job feel to it, with these two dental hygienists Karen and Jessica (Molly Hagan, AIR BUD: SEVENTH INNING FETCH, SULLY) stepping out of their work areas, witnessing suspicious things, exchanging “what the fuck?” and “did you see that shit?” looks.

“They’re dropping like flies” Molly says at one point, not knowing the half of it. When she finds April’s nylons abandoned in Dr. Feinstone’s office she knows things are really bad, but of course they’re actually worse than she suspects. It seems like kind of a relief when he leaves the office, until we see that he’s going home to trick his wife into sitting in his fancy home dental chair so he can drug her and pull all of her teeth. (Which, to be clear, is not a necessary procedure.)

Of course, this being a psychotic dentist, there is some horrifying damage done to teeth and mouths. At first accidental, then spiteful. The effects are well done and the graphic drilling of teeth is a rare and disturbing category of onscreen violence. The sounds and the sights of teeth being yanked, twisted or sanded into dust cause much more sympathetic wincing than your traditional stabbings or slashings.

But being a low budget slasher type movie of the mid-‘90s they also gotta have a few asshole characters who you maybe sort of enjoy seeing get killed in horrible ways. At least that’s the role of sleazy IRS agent Marvin Goldblum (Earl Boen, THE TERMINATOR). But poor Sarah is only guilty of being dorkily excited about getting her braces off, and she gets chased around and terrorized. She barely gets away by tearfully promising to brush three times a day and not eat candy.

The score is by John Carpenter’s frequent music collaborator Alan Howarth, his followup to HALLOWEEN 6: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS. There is some good pulsing synth stuff, but unfortunately more of it is the Full Moon style keyboard-as-subpar-orchestra type bullshit, the only thing about the movie that seems cheap-ass in a bad way. There’s lots of solid work on display here: the disorienting camerawork of cinematographer Levie Isaacks (SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, THE GUYVER, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION), the gore effects of Anthony C. Ferrante (WISHMASTER 2), Rob Burman and Kevin Yagher, and of course Bernsen’s depiction of a miserable prick falling trying to hide that he’s absolutely falling to pieces. Apparently the story was inspired by a real life killer dentist who Bernsen had already played in the 1993 TV movie BEYOND SUSPICION, with Markie Post and Don Swayze.

The script is by the great Stuart Gordon (who was doing SPACE TRUCKERS around that time), his frequent partner Dennis Paoli (BODY SNATCHERS), and Charles Finch (story credit on BAD GIRLS, that western with Drew Barrymore). That reminds me of Gordon’s attempt to make a movie of AMERICAN PSYCHO several years before this. THE DENTIST doesn’t star Johnny Depp and isn’t shot in the black and white style of an Obsession perfume commercial, as Gordon says he wanted to do with AMERICAN PSYCHO, but it definitely has some thematic overlap. Unfeeling rich guy, obsessed with his appearance, losing grip on reality, doing gruesome, torturous murders, mostly to women, with an undercurrent of very dark class satire, and some indication that some of it is all in his head.

It’s nothing big, but it’s got decent amount of clever nastiness and the insanity swiftly and effectively spirals to its conclusion in 92 minutes. At the very least it’s one of Yuzna’s best.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 19th, 2019 at 11:06 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “The Dentist”

  1. Fond, if slightly dim, memories of this one. Had a great trailer too

  2. I’m sure I told this story here before, but when I was working at a small advertising agency, we were at one point hired to make a commercial for a dentist office, who supplied us with lots of stock footage from his practice, ranging from normal “Here is the doctor talking to his team” to VERY graphic “This is how the doctor cuts the patient’s gums with a scalpel, folds it down and pulls the tooth, only to jam a tiny metal rod in its place” surgery footage.

    One Friday afternoon we all gathered around, ordered pizza and watched the whole thing for shits and giggles, trying to see who would last the longest. I’m proud to say I didn’t walk out first, but also didn’t stay till the end.

    In terms of this movie: I never saw it, but remember that even “serious” critics mostly liked it, because of Bernsen’s performance and the overall dark humored vibe of it.

  3. Looking forward to drilling down into this one later. Hoping it will fill a yawning cavity but bracing myself for the worst. Even if it’s a partial success, that will be enough. Okay, I better retain some of these puns until a check-up on this review a little later.

  4. The sequel has two titles. THE DENTIST 2: BRACE YOURSELF, and THE DENTIST 2: YOU KNOW THE DRILL. Amazing.

  5. I don’t know what I said above, and I’m not looking, but I think some of the reactions have been a bit hyperbolic. I don’t think this film is a paradigm-shifting work of genius, but it’s extremely well-done and satisfying, lean and disciplined, and it’s not coasting on celebrity, franchise, nostalgia, or wink-wink too-cool-for-schoolness. In the current environment, that earns it a lot of goodwill.

  6. Oops, that post was intended for CRAWL. I think I’m just leaving it, though.

  7. Is it statistically significant that your medical horror series has started with 2 insane dentists in a row? Do dentists go crazy at a higher rate than other kinds of doctors? Are there any horror movies about a crazy podiatrists? Because that sounds disturbing.

    Either way, I am so here for this series. I come from a medical family and I always appreciate it when film puts a spotlight on the importance of a well-functioning healthcare system.

  8. Major – Although his nickname may remind you of dental laughing gas, Dr. Giggles is a (completely untrained and unlicensed) physician. I don’t actually know of another psycho dentist other than the one in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.

  9. Dental Horror is the only horror I can’t watch. I thank my high school English teacher for that, who screened MARATHON MAN in class after we read the book. Fuckin Nazi dentists. No, it isn’t safe.

  10. This is why I love reading your reviews. I avoided DR Giggles and this movie because having TV stars as the bad guy I expected that they wouldn’t let them be really creepy and scary. So now I’ll have to check them out.

  11. This is why I love reading your reviews. I avoided DR Giggles and this movie because having TV stars as the bad guy I expected that they wouldn’t let them be really creepy and scary. So now I’ll have to check them out.

  12. I rented this from Vulcan Video (RIP soon), hoping for some Gigglesian flavor and came away very disappointed. Couldn’t even finish it. Maybe when they sell their stock I’ll buy the DVD and try it again with adjusted expectations. I do think it’s funny that both of the movies in this series are fronted by L.A. Law regulars. If you can find one of these with Susan Dey as the lead I’d be very impressed.

  13. Or Jill Eikenberry. The (non-Infinity) gauntlet has been thrown

  14. I remember when Dr. Giggles came out, it inspired my budding filmmaker friends to make a horror movie about a crazy dentist called Check Up. (We were action/sci-fi junkies so to want to make a horror flick was unheard of for these high school freshman).

    Then when we were at the video store and saw the box for this and never actually wound up making the flick.

    Still havent seen it out of residual anger, but maybe its time to let go of hate and check this out.

  15. I have varying tolerance for different types of gore, so Vern’s observation about the dental torture in this film being more “wince-inducing” than full-on butchering in other slasher films really hits a nerve with me (pun fully intended). Hence, I’m not sure I want to watch this.

    Freddy and Jason gore has always been fine. Zombie H2 violence and TCM violence (very limited actual gore) are both far more upsetting, but I tolerate it, because it seems to be in service of a filmatic vision. There’s an auteristic evocative message in the madness. The gore in HOSTEL was pushing the line for me, but I file it under the same category of Zombie H2 and TCM – upsetting but serves a filmatic objective. Same with MIDSOMMAR, although there were some really upsetting parts where I looked away, to be 100.

    The gorefests that just revel in gore or punishment for the sake of gore and punishment, either in the campy sense or in the lazier or more gonzo torture porn, have never been my bag. I remember watching DEAD ALIVE when it first came out on VHS, and I just didn’t get it. Still don’t. Same with SAW films. No judgment there, just reflecting on how I can have more varied and nuanced reactions — not all of which do I fully understand — about gore. It’s not a monolithic phenomenon.

    Just a little something to chew on. Hopefully didn’t gum it up too bad.

  16. If I have a threshold for gore, I haven’t found it yet, but it’s usually the smaller, more down-to-earth effects that get me, not the overblown splatterpaloozas like DEAD ALIVE, which I just consider good fun. There’s that one scene in THE DENTIST (the only memorable part of a deeply unmemorable movie, in my opinion) that makes me cringe. I don’t even think there’s any blood in the scene. I think tooth damage is just one of those things that’s easy to get queasy about because it’s so relatable. You can tear people in half all day and it won’t make me cringe because that is too far beyond the realm of relatable experience, but anybody can imagine what it would be like to have your teeth broken. And it’s always even worse because teeth don’t grow back like flesh does. A finely focused gore effect that zeroes in on a real human anxiety will always be more effective than a paint-the-walls-red showstopper, which is usually more a display of bravura showmanship than something designed to really get under your skin.

  17. Yeah, that sounds about right.

  18. I DID FUCK UP.

    But here’s the crazy thing. I actually DID read your DR. GIGGLES review, and so I should have had it at the forefront of my mind that DR. GIGGLES is not a dentist. But: throughout the early 90’s, my home town video store had a DR. GIGGLES poster on the wall, and DR. GIGGLES always SEEMED like he was dentist. The laughing gas is a huge part of that–this is when BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES also had laughing gas as a major plot element. So I have always thought of Dr. Giggles as a dentist. No lie.

    But Dr. Giggles is so much more than just a dentist. He’s a full-on medical practitioner. And that is why we must fear him.

    (Although I do think that podiatrists are scary. Why would you chose podiatry as a career, you weirdo?)

  19. And if Jack Nicholson plays a psycho dentist, doesn’t that make psycho dentists a sub-genre all on its own?

  20. I used to love this movie. Cinemax used to air it every time they didn’t air soft core porn or UNIVERSAL SOLDIER tv sequels and I got used to it. I had no idea there was a sequel though. Consider my mind blown.

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