No, the 1996 slasher The Dentist was not about America serial killer, and dentist by profession, Glennon, Engleman. Maybe a news headline influenced writers Dennis Paoli, Stuart Gordon (Castle Freak, The Pit and the Pendulum), and Charles Finch to draft up a screenplay. But let’s face it – a slasher movie about a killer dentist kind of writes itself. When The Dentist released onto videostore shelves, Scream was likely a few months down the road. So this was a slasher strangely out of time in the horror landscape by the mid-1990s. It’s something of an under-the-radar gem for some horror fans. Not surprisingly, critics were largely unimpressed.
Dr. Alan Feinstone has it all. A successful dental practice in Los Angeles. A beautiful wife. A stunning home. Or at least it seems like he has it all. Suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, Dr. Feinstone is consumed with tooth decay and germs. When he catches his wife cheating on their wedding anniversary, Dr. Feinstone slips into a dangerous tailspin. As he increasingly gives in to his compulsions, neither his wife nor his patients or staff are safe.
The Dentist is a Frequently Strange, Out-of-Date Slasher
When The Dentist was released, slasher movies had probably seen their peak almost a decade earlier. Even the late 1980s saw the big franchises, like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, begin to scrape the barrel for results. And what’s immediately obvious from the opening scenes is just how out of touch this slasher looks and feels. Much of the dated qualities of the movie stem from the lower budget production values. That is, The Dentist screams ‘straight-to-video 90s horror movie’. It’s a general washed-out quality to the picture that every VHS horror movie from the time period seemed to share. Other aspects of this slasher – from how it imagines how policing works to its casual approach to sexual content – make it kind of archaic.
And what’s immediately obvious from the opening scenes is just how out of touch this slasher looks and feels.
Yet The Dentist also distances itself from much of the Grade-Z slasher garbage released in the latter half of the 80s. In terms of its narrative structure and tone, director Brian Yuzna (Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation) more closely follows The Stepfather. Rather than follow a standard stalk-and-slash formula, Yuzna alternates between the increasingly delusional perspectives of its antagonists and the inevitable comeuppance for its victims. There’s also a strange, almost surrealistic, quality to much of the movie. Even when it’s not an objectively good piece of filmmaking, The Dentist is watchable just for how weird if often feels.
The Dentist Gets By on Dark Humor and Suitably Gross-Out Scenes
Arguably, The Dentist works best when it gets to what audiences are expecting – our killer dentist in action. No one likes goings to see the dentist. Besides our eyes, there’s probably nothing more uncomfortable than seeing someone having teeth pulled. When it gets to Dr. Feinstone’s version of dental hygiene, The Dentist deliver some truly grisly slasher fare that should have most viewers feeling a lot of anxiety. Yuzna wrings out the maximum potential from these gross-out moments. In addition, Anthony C. Ferrante’s (Sharknado) special effects are impressive for what’s essentially a B-slasher movie.
Yuzna wrings out the maximum potential from these gross-out moments.
Alongside these effects and the idiosyncratic atmosphere, The Dentist benefits from a dark sense of humor and committed performances. Yuzna and the writers find plenty of subject matter to use as cannon fodder – some a little less appropriate than others. Digs at philanderous pool boys and conniving IRA employees make the grisly effects more fun that disturbing. And a running gag involving a teenaged girl waiting to get her braces off doesn’t overstay its welcome. One scene involving an assault on an unconscious patient just wouldn’t fly today. But Corbin Bernsen’s performance is suitably over-the-top. Keep an eye out for a very young Mark Ruffalo.
The Dentist Extracts a Few Gross Out Moments From a Dated Format
Just about everything with The Dentist feels odd. Whether it’s the strange pacing, odd mix of dark comedy and violence, or the admittedly impressive close-ups of ‘dental violence’, Yuzna ensures his slasher is strangely watchable. In fact, it’s the eclectic look and feel of this out-of-date slasher that’s the biggest selling point. Of course, Corbin Bernsen’s committed and wonderfully off-kilter performance helps. No one’s going to confuse The Dentist for a slasher classic. But it’s better than expected and the sort of horror movie you could do worse with on a slow, rainy evening.