In the Mouth of Madness: Brian Yuzna’s The Dentist (1996)

Ahead of its twenty-fifth anniversary later this year, Matty looks back at the horror maestro’s high-concept shocker and charts its long in the tooth history. 

Despite producing and/or directing bona fide cult favourites Re-Animator (1985), Dolls (1986), From Beyond (1986), Society (1989), and Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) — and in spite of his name serving as a masonic handshake among genre buffs — horror meister Brian Yuzna has never cracked the mainstream. He’s come close: first, in 1989 as the co-writer and co-producer of Disney smash Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (which was originally slated to be helmed by Yuzna’s Re-Animator compadre Stuart Gordon, until illness necessitated the reins being passed to Joe Johnston), and then in 1995 as the executive producer of Christophe Gans’ lavish manga adap Crying Freeman — a sizeable project tipped for a success that, criminally, didn’t happen. Perhaps Yuzna’s most fascinating brush with the big leagues, though, was with his unrealised Seven Deadly Sins of Horror

Mounted at Miramax subsidiary Dimension Films, The Seven Deadly Sins of Horror was to be a continuing film series in which Yuzna, as producer and presenter, would unite George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Mary Lambert, Richard Stanley, and old pal Gordon to orchestrate a feature length terror tale each based around the theme of gluttony, lust, greed, pride, anger, and envy, respectively. Each director was to be given a $3.5million budget and, following script approval from Dimension, full creative control with Yuzna himself tackling the last sin, sloth. Alas, for all of Dimension’s ballyhoo about this ambitious and forward-thinking ‘event’ project (Masters of Horror, anyone?) at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, the company’s autocratic head, Bob Weinstein, did his usual trick and micromanaged it into oblivion. The specifics are murky but from slivers of info Yuzna and his Deadly Sins co-producer, Emmanuel Itier, have let slip in the years since, the impression given is that Weinstein continually played his script approval card and refused to greenlight any script that was developed [1]. 

While Yuzna would eventually fulfil his desire to operate a production line by founding Spanish shingle Filmax’s genre wing, the Fantastic Factory, at the turn of the millennium, his doomed dalliance with Dimension left behind a few tantalising ‘what ifs?’. Besides the obscene waste of talent, the cruellest was the squandering of Yuzna’s experimental and actually quite inspired distribution proposal.

It’s no secret that, until Wes Craven’s po-mo slasher classic Scream (1996) (which, ironically, was produced by Dimension) gave it a kick up the proverbial, theatrical horror was dying a death in the ‘90s — something Yuzna was keen to remedy: 

“I am a fan of horror movies and I enjoy going to things like Interview with the Vampire (1994), but there’s something about the old basic genre picture,” Yuzna told Fangoria at the time. “It’s kind of like a fix, and it’s unfortunate that it has become trapped in the distribution business because of the shrinking video market. My solution would be to treat theatrical horror titles as ‘art’ films and Miramax could apply their expertise in releasing speciality movies to the horror genre. What you do is identify certain theaters in each city that will show these kinds of films. You say, “This is where they’re going to be,” and show them on a continuous basis. You don’t take out full-page ads or spend a lot of money on TV advertising. That means you can bring the budgets up from direct-to-video and target the movies at genre fans who don’t want to see watered-down [bigger budgeted] genre pictures.” [2] 

Alas once more, then, that The Seven Deadly Sins of Horror was torpedoed. Even post the epoch-making, teen-centric frights of Scream, such a plan could have revolutionised the distribution of the type of horror that Yuzna dealt with. Instead, the wilder, wackier, and distinctly more B-laced shocks that were Yuzna’s bread and butter were consigned to the video arena for good. 

Well, almost. 

As Yuzna noted in his Fangoria chinwag, by the mid ‘90s, the video market was indeed shrinking, at least in terms of the almighty dollar. Yes, a greater number of movies were being slapped to tape, the numbers peaking just prior to DVD’s introduction in 1997, but with this gluttonous deluge came a notable dent in the profits as warring distributors jostled for shelf space amidst an increasingly corporate rental landscape as the fabled Mom n’ Pop stores of yore fell victim to capitalism and monopoly (hello, Blockbuster!). Because of this, cannier-minded indie distros started hedging their bets, preempting their cassette releases with fanfarous premieres on cable television.        

So what, pray tell, does this extended preamble have to do with THE DENTIST (1996)? The answer is simple:

Everything.

The film Yuzna was prepping in tandem with his ill-fated Dimension tenure, The Dentist was launched as a cheap but mainstream-flirting thriller by Mark Amin’s Trimark Pictures and became a surprise video hit for the company after its positively received US debut on HBO in November 1996. The Dentist even modestly infiltrated pop culture: it swiftly earned a warmly regarded reputation in genre circles that, today, positions its eponymous drill-wielding psycho as one of those second-tier maniacs you stumble upon once you’ve square danced with hallowed horror heroes Michael, Freddy, and Jason. And rightly so I hasten to add — The Dentist is a fabulous movie and easily in the upper echelons of its maker’s stunning resume.

Yuzna had entered the Trimark fold as the potential director of Warlock: The Armageddon (1992), and The Dentist began life as a title and concept that was pitched to him by Amin as their first pair-up proper, Return of the Living Dead 3 (which, incidentally, housed a cameo from Warlock: The Armageddon’s eventual helmer, Anthony Hickox), snuck into stateside cinemas. Initially worried that The Dentist would be another Dr. Giggles (1992) but figuring, hey, employment’s employment, Yuzna drafted in his Ticks (1993) and Necronomicon (1993) collaborator Brent V. Friedman to hash out a script. The result was a sci-fi-tinged story detailing the exploits of an alien orthodontist which Trimark vetoed — but Friedman’s script very nearly came to be under the stewardship of Tobe Hooper at a floundering Orion Pictures, much to the chagrin of Trimark who were prepared to pull the plug on their own mouth-lacerating epic to avoid a competing production.

Thankfully for Amin and co., Hooper’s project was sunk by Orion’s financial woes. At this point, Yuzna’s Re-Animator and From Beyond pals Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli stepped in to offer their ‘Falling Down (1993) meets The Stepfather (1987)’ take on the material. Trimark loved it and agreed to proceed but, by then, there was a fly in the ointment: due to his commitments as the exec producer of Crying Freeman, it was unlikely that Yuzna would be able to wield the megaphone. Yuzna and Trimark amicably parted ways and Amin briefly courted Gordon to sit in the dentist’s — sorry, director’s — chair but to no avail. Enter former Cronenberg producer Pierre David [3], who recruited Charles Finch to polish Gordon and Paoli’s script and was more than happy to wait for a gap in Yuzna’s hectic schedule — a decision Amin acquiesced to. Captained by Yuzna, shooting finally commenced in late September 1995 and The Dentist came in on time (it was shot in twenty days on 35mm short-ends), on budget (press materials claim the film to be within the $2-$3million bracket, but, reading between the lines, it was probably closer to $1.5million), and with little fuss (cinematographer Levie Isaaks replacing original lensman Denis Maloney due to a family emergency, and L.A. Law star Corbin Bernsen’s prickly, method-y presence on set as the titular medico notwithstanding). 

Submitting an utterly explosive performance, Bernsen — who, a few years earlier had portrayed a thinly disguised version of real-life dentist-cum-murderer Glennon Engleman in the soapy made-for-TV schlocker Appointment for a Killing (1993) — toplines as Dr. Alan Feinstone. Already feeling the strain thanks to his lucrative dental practice being investigated by a cocky IRS agent (a succulently smarmy Earl Boen), the remnants of the highly strung Feinstone’s perfectly ordered life come crashing down when he catches his shrewish trophy wife, Brooke (Linda Hoffman), servicing the pool boy (orally, naturally). Arriving at work, a truly bad couple of days at the office ensue — and as the fraught Feinstone’s grip on reality loosens, he decides to fight back against the moral decay he sees around him, splitting gums, cutting tongues, destroying molars, and, in the film’s finest sequence, dismantling a jaw with the tools of his trade… 

A richly essayed character study spiked with cheeky visual and aural nods to Alfred Hitchcock, Yuzna maintains a laser-like focus on Feinstone for the bulk of The Dentist’s duration. Underlining the fact that the tightly wound Feinstone is a boogeyman — odontophobia condensed into a single love-to-hate package — Yuzna paints him as an insufferably pompous and controlling ass behind closed doors, but allows Bernsen to ladle on enough twinkly-eyed charm in the passages that require the doc to schmooze his awe-struck patients. It’s a superb juggling act: we can see why Feinstone’s permanently tetchy Mrs. would readily risk her supposedly ‘ideal’ existence for a bit of no-frills excitement elsewhere (ie. to escape the mind-numbing tedium of a guy who goes into a histrionic meltdown over diamond cufflinks) and yet, in the same breath, understand why Feinstone’s largely devoted staff are quick to defend his worsening actions when the charismatic quack’s (surgical) mask of sanity slips, revealing the twitching, fragile mass of nerves underneath. 

Indeed, fragility lies at the heart of The Dentist’s narrative. There’s a reason that, Boen’s corrupt blowhard aside, Feinstone’s nosedive into madness and murder is triggered by his wife’s infidelity and intensified by Molly Hagan’s belligerent senior dental assistant. Feinstone is rigidly old fashioned; a chauvinist sent reeling by women who refuse to yield to his blinkered visions and values. It’s an idea Yuzna and his writers make literal in the film’s ickiest, skeeviest scene. In it, Feinstone sexually assaults an air-headed beauty queen (a suitably bubbly Christa Sauls) as she’s zonked out with goofy gas, hallucinating that the prone dolly bird is his spouse. Seat-shiftingly uncomfortable, things go from bad to worse when Feinstone’s fantasy projection of Brooke twists from obedience to defiance: dream Brooke murmurs her hunky pool boy lover’s name and, in an emasculated, cuck-induced rage, Feinstone throttles her, stopping only when he realises he isn’t knocking boots or strangling his cheating wife but a patient.

In a 2013 chat with The Dark Side Digital, Bernsen reflected on the role of Dr. Feinstone and the effect it had on him and the rest of the production: 

“I thought the script was brilliant,” he said. “But I’ll tell you something about The Dentist, man, and it’s very odd — I went very deep into the zone, if you will, and I was not pleasant to be around. I was not good to go home to my family, and I sort of remember working with Brian and having our arguments about it. To go to the place where Feinstone had to be — you could see the veins fucking popping out of my head, and that was not something I could switch on and off. I couldn’t go and socialise with the crew and people still come up to me and say, “I was on The Dentist with you!” and I honestly don’t remember them.” [4]

Of course, for as character focused and as subtextually weighty as The Dentist is in the age of Angry Entitled White Men™, at its core it’s just a rock solid horror programmer buoyed by Yuzna’s signature obsessions and his typically twisted sense of humour. In quintessential Yuzna fashion, the immediate pleasures of the film are its gloriously grotesque FX. Coordinated by Fangoria scribe and Yuzna stalwart Anthony C. Ferrante, primarily created by Josh Logan, and featuring input from Kevin Yagher studios, the FX occupy a deliciously rubbery space between medical accuracy, stylised comic book pomp, and disarming kinkiness, as evidenced by the copious invasive close-ups of a giant mouth prop, redressed with different teeth to denote its recurring use for different characters — a strangely alluring fabrication that Yuzna captures with his patented fetishistic glee (cf. Society, Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1991), Return of the Living Dead 3). 

However, it’s Yuzna’s dollops of dark comedy that render The Dentist so terrifically watchable. Boasting a chunky, sun-soaked sheen and a parpy, Herrmann-tipping electronic score by Alan Howarth, The Dentist’s technical nuts n’ bolts are excellent in and of themselves, but they serve a greater purpose: they’re deliberately at odds with the nastier and inherently upsetting elements, their juxtaposition a key component in Yuzna’s deft ability to conjure an atmosphere of unease and toe-curling tension. And though Yuzna keeps an admirably straight face, preventing The Dentist from descending into outright camp or parody (which it could have done in lesser hands), he does wink in the direction of the kitsch, the trashy, and the lurid, lacing this portrait of narcissism and self-inflicted pressure with an exaggerated, pantomime quality that makes the dark psychological stuff and weird leeriness that permeates the film all the more powerful because they’re so perversely enjoyable to experience. 

“The problem, for me, was making sense and finding the right approach to [the] story, which was essentially a series of painful deaths, one after the other,” Yuzna told the Daily Dead in 2020. “I deal with death and I deal with pain, but I don’t care about body counts. And The Dentist was in serious danger of being a slasher film and I absolutely wanted to avoid something like that. To do this, the first thing was to give a stylistic connotation that was over the top to each murder, taking inspiration from a Hitchcock scene from time to time, and then I tried to make [Dr. Feinstone] as positive as possible… We started to introduce ideas that could make him more intriguing, like the fact that he is a lover of opera — an idea introduced by Charles Finch. He was also the one who introduced the idea that each room in the dental office had a different theme and Feinstone’s obsession with white. With these additions, I started to feel a certain sympathy for him. In the end, he’s just a man disappointed by love and life. He’s broken-hearted and is basically an overly sensitive human at his breaking point… The dental office is basically his mind and each room, with its specific theme, is the physical manifestation of his different mental states.”  

[1] Interestingly, one of the treatments developed for Yuzna’s own sloth went on to become Idle Hands (1999) at Columbia, sans Yuzna’s involvement. 
[2] Brian Yuzna’s ‘Deadly Sins’ by Anthony C. Ferrante, Fangoria #148, Nov. 1995.
[3] ‘Occupational thrillers’ are a David specialty, and he has a ludicrous affinity for films titled with the definite article. See: The Paperboy (1994), The Force (1995), The Secretary (1995), The Nurse (1997), The Landlady (1998), The Perfect Nanny (2001), The Perfect Assistant (2008), and The Perfect Teacher (2010)
[4] Driller Thriller by Calum Waddell, The Dark Side Digital 03, March 2013.

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