31 Days of Hell: The Dentist

Don't be scared. He's only a dentist.

No one likes going to the dentist. In fact, I know people who avoid it like their very lives depend on it. After seeing the bombastic grotesquery on display in Brian Yuzna’s The Dentist, one would be hard-pressed to call their fears “silly” or “irrational”—though the movie surely is both of those things—but he has so much fun using our fear of the drill against us, it’s no wonder that this film’s creators also brought us Re-Animator. Yuzna and his effects team handle the gallons of gore and disgustingness with the same glee of a little kid finding a new toy that shoots projectiles.

The script by Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli exploits every awful daydream you’ve ever had in the waiting room of your dentist office. Anyone who has never had a root canal would probably imagine one of Yuzna’s monstrously inhumane close up shots of teeth being shredded into dust by a drill, while a tongue flails about like an ineffective wimp trying to save his friend from a bully. Think about the dread in the pit of your stomach when you called into the dental clinic with a throbbing pain in your jaw, wondering, “What if he has to pull it? Will it hurt? Do they just use pliers?” I assure you the process is nothing like what we see the eponymous antagonist perform on his philandering wife, but it may have you think the string tied to a doorknob trick is a better option.

"Come here. Let me gum you to death."

Yuzna and his writers are so tapped into the vein that carries the blood to our molars that their premise alone might have been enough for a successful horror film. But if that wasn’t enough, they managed to find the perfect actor for this role. Known best at the time for playing the impish Arnie Becker on L.A. Law—and of course starring in Major League as the douchebag short stop, Roger Dorn—Corbin Bernsen was not the ideal choice for a horror film. This is one instance where the gamble on casting against type certainly paid off. Bernsen is nothing short of a revelation here. He is absurd, funny, over the top, downright terrifying, and even a little sympathetic, but most important of all, we can tell that he gets it, that he understands the script in his bones, feeling out exactly what this completely off-kilter killer needs. It takes a special performance to get just the right awkward laugh from an audience after shooting a dog in the face.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty much irrelevant—it’s all at the service of setting up situations for Bernsen to go Jason Voorhees with his instruments. He plays Dr. Alan Feinstone, DDS, a successful man in all the ways that sent Kevin Spacey into the arms of an underage cheerleader, and his wife is just as unfaithful. When he witnesses her adultery firsthand—on their wedding anniversary, no less—Feinstone suffers a psychotic break. Suddenly every woman who sits in his chair is his cheating wife, and every guy is the strutting pool boy. His clientele doesn’t much appreciate his new bedside manner, and on one occasion the good doctor gets a falcon punch from none other than a young Mark Ruffalo. But then again, he’s always angry.

"Thanks to modern medicine, I can't
feel a thing."
Accompanied by an excellent synthesized score from frequent John Carpenter collaborator Alan Howarth, The Dentist feels like a playful and rambunctious 80s slasher classic, and yet it’s also a full-blooded 90s gem, bursting with the middle class angst that would come to define the decade with later titles like Fight Club and American Beauty. I suppose that’s what makes Bernsen’s performance as the titular character so effective: In the beginning, he comes off like many a person we’ve all met, so despite the bloody tongue planted firmly in cheek, it’s unsettling when he goes off. We find ourselves waiting with baited breath for these poor bastards in his chair to say just the wrong thing to trigger that look on his face. When Bernsen bares his bottom row of teeth, throws a glance at his tray of surgically sharp goodies, we know it’s game on. I hope you remembered to floss.

-Blake O. Kleiner