The dentists we see in movies, TV and literature are only ever one of two things: a hapless idiot or terrifying torturer.
Being entertainment, it’s accepted exaggerations and parodies. Either depiction of a dentist compounds the belief of children and adults alike of a person pushing a syringe or a drill into your face.
Images of dentists and their incredibly engineered and astoundingly medieval tools are the reinforcements of fear that keep dental appointments too rarely made.
Mandible is a 2013 entrant in the short film Newport Beach Film Festival, opens with a warning of graphic scenes and viewer discretion before cutting to a black-and-white 50s scene of a bespectacled dentist, his sexually constrained Ava Gardiner look-alike dental nurse with an obedient and be-bibbed, quintessential American boy in the chair between. The first scenes begin and end with “Your friends, the teeth… Healthy teeth make for a happy life.”
Cut to a modern and expensive dental office interspliced with flashes of bloodied teeth, Big Cats hunting, and generally gory images that shock like a body diagonal of blood splash, unexpected.
The topic of flossing becomes a dark narrative of steely dental equipment inside the patient’s mouth. The drill drills, the familiar coldness of that sound felt it in your teeth. It’s a short, sharp trip to the edge. Hannibal Lecter, Alex of A Clockwork Orange and Marathon Man’s Dr Szell all shaped in the shadows of scenes you’d like to unsee the next time you’re in the dentist chair.
You won’t be able to. It’ll be like not thinking about Jaws when you’re swimming in the ocean.
Time Magazine ranked Dr Christian Szell as one of the 25 greatest movie villains, the depiction crescendo the graphic dental torture of Babe without anaesthetic and being repeatedly asked, “Is it safe?”
It’s a scene described as one of the most frightening sequences in film, and probably because of that, cold dentist character portrayals are always easier to recall than kind.
The sadism of both the book and movie Marathon Man; Little Shop of Horrors, The Dentist. The moral bankruptcies of Cactus Flower and Novocaine. Jennifer Anniston’s hot and harassing nymphomaniac Dr Julia Harris of Horrible Bosses comically superb.
And very unnerving.
In the critically acclaimed first season of Fargo, Billy Bob Thornton’s genius deadpan portrayal of Lorne Malvo brings us the psychological, motherless lovechild of Dr Szell. The personification of evolving violence in a frightening and fascinating hitman of no conscience. Restrained malevolence is his relentless brilliance and in order to bounty hunt a protection program witness, he poses as a dentist for six months.
And here’s the rub: as dentist Mick Michaelson, he’s aces.
Well liked by his patients for his gentle hand and convivial nature, loved by fellow dental clinician Dr Burt Canton and his wife, adored by his stunning assistant and fiancé Jemma Stalone.
He throws a great party. A charming and engaging dinner guest.
The dentist you’d love to have.
Within 70 seconds of being in an elevator he shoots the Cantons and Jemma dead just to prove a point to a newly prideful Lester Nygaard.
“This one’s on you,” Malvo says. “I worked this guy for six months, Lester. Six months! Can you imagine the number of sewer mouths I put my hands in? The gallons of human spit? Plus the hundred thousand ballot down the toilet. But still. The look on his face when I pulled the gun. Classic, huh.”
Brilliance with a burnisher.
Granted, it’s not all just tight-lipped maniacs. We also have the naïve and inept: Captain Kosciusko Waldowski in Altman’s M*A*S*H, Finding Nemo’s Dr Sherman; The In-Laws with Alan Arkin’s mild-mannered Shelly Kornpett. The Whole Nine Yards. And when Abbott and Costello have a 27-minute television routine with a near-sighted dentist in 1952’s The Dentist’s Office, regardless of who’s on first, you know nobody’s going to survive the rapid-fire patter and knockabout slapstick.
Before Bryan Cranston was Breaking Bad from Walter White to Heisenberg, he was Jerry’s dentist Dr Tim Whatley in Seinfeld. Throughout this classic sitcom, Whatley is variously revealed as a ‘re-gifter’, accused by Jerry of possibly ‘violating’ him while anaesthetised for a filling, gives Christmas gifts that were actually donations meant for charity, and converts to Judaism.
1996’s slasher film The Dentist and it’s ’98 The Dentist 2 are grisly and hilarious subpar horror-comedies about dental anxiety with over-the-top images of mouths and queasy allusions to oral sex. “Truth or tooth” is a game strapped to a dentist chair that nobody will ever want to play.
Don’t think movies and books for kids are necessarily a safe bet.
Who can forget the pun on ‘fisherman’ P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney NSW, kidnapping rather than Finding Nemo?
It’s what makes it easy to define him the villain. That he’s a dentist seals the deal on horrible human.
Really, he’s not. When he sees the unexpectedly filthy tank Dr Philip Sherman cancels his patients in order to give his fish a sparklingly clean tank, and with the help of the latest aquarium cleaning system the Aquascum 3000.
Without P. Sherman, Nemo would have never adventured and found himself, and would never have escaped to find his way home.
Not a horror, P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney NSW: a hero.
Dentists in Movies, TV, Comedy & Literature: Is there an Immediately Endearing Dentist at Least?
Only Dr Ted Brookes of Snow Dogs comes to mind; the quintessential expectation of a Disney film. And just a year before that, the Golden Books production of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys, where Hermey the Elf’s career change includes a Toothmobile and a Tooth Fairy crush.
Too twee? Try David Walliams’ children’s book, The Demon Dentist – heartwarming for sure. With grisly embellishments. Savage and rusty dental tools, a cat that licks blood from freshly pulled teeth, a plucked pig’s eyeball still twitching. Pricelessly ridiculous; revoltingly humorous.
And very, very creepy.
Dental humour and horror, pinpointing the heinous and hilarious with the drugs and tools of the trade is a coping mechanism for lightening the overload.
When one of the most significant authors of the 20th century, Gabriel García Márquez filled out his dental history in a Colombian dentist’s office 1991 it read: “Patient’s name: Gabriel García Márquez. Occupation: Lifetime patient. Telephone number: Disconnected for nonpayment. If married, occupation of spouse: Yes, she doesn’t do anything. Company employing spouse: Wouldn’t you like to know. Name of the person responsible for the payment of treatment: Gabo, the telegraphist’s son. Is anything bothering you? Do you have any pain? Bothers I have, the pain will come later. Can you tell us who recommended you to the doctor? His universal fame.”
Turning scary to quirky … and just a little bit endearing.
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