Sixteen Tongues (1999)

The first time I wrestled in Japan, I took a handful of sleeping pills on a 19-hour flight and they never really kicked in, fighting in my gut with a glass bottle of Thailand Red Bull which laughs at that skinny can we have here and I was caught in a world between sleep and awake, knowing where I was but feeling like someone else was dragging me through airport lobbies, subway stations packed with singsong teenage girls trying to get dogs adopted and endless walking through the unfamiliar streets of Osaka until we ended at the Arrow Hotel, a place with a BGM button in my small room that only played two songs — the themes from The Godfather and Midnight Cowboy — and a TV that only played bukkake porn that had pixelated genitalia all static shafts spraying all over a woman whose face was anything but hidden.

Sixteen Tongues starts there and goes even further, giving me flashbacks that shock me into unreality, like at the end of Altered States when people start to de-evolve into VHS tracking noise before we knew what that was.

Director and writer Scooter McCrae creates worlds filled with menace and carnal overload and never more than this movie, a hotel where you have to pay to shut off the endless penetration on the TVs that never shut down, can never be unplugged, that just fluff you until you remember those screaming moments of first puberty overwhelming need with the adult realization that there’s truly nowhere to gain relief.

I always loved the Dark Brothers because back in the letters pages of Hustler people were enraged that someone had the effrontery to make a dirty movie that was nearly impossible to climax to. How dare someone put art in my smut? Or, in the case of this movie, smut in my art?

Adrian Torque (Crawford James, who improbably also played a cop on iCarly, so he’s done the alpha and omega of being a police officer on film, one supposes; he was also a security guard in The 6th Day) survived a bomb blast but maybe his mind and body didn’t. He has the sixteen tongues of everyone who died around him grafted to his skin and he can feel them all screaming inside his mind.

Ginny Chin-Chin (Jane Chase) is a cyborg good at making love and taking lives. She’s in a constant state of arousal thanks to the mad scientist she dreams of killing, a man who implanted a clitoris inside each of her eyes. Her lover — who hasn’t given her much in the way of relief in some time or maybe just days, who can even know — Alik Silens (Alice Liu) is a hacker obsessed with finding the man who killed her brother.

You know how everyone was making future tech movies in the 90s and 2000s and all of it felt dated instantly? When so many people filmed Phillip K. Dick movies and referenced William Gibson? Sixteen Tongues is at once the film they wanted to make and never could because sex is worse than death. For all everyone refers to movies as being like Cronenberg, I’m more amazed by this movie which is its own genre, its own world, its own influence.

I’ve read that this was based on the Merle Travis song “Sixteen Tons,” which goes “Some people say a man is made outta mud, a poor man’s made outta muscle and blood. Muscle and blood and skin and bones, a mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong.” The song came from the writer’s life, as his brother wrote to him and remarked, “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt” while his coal miner father often would state, “I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.” It’s a catchy song that’s fun to sing until you realize all these men were under the Earth digging and dying.

Also: Stark Raven from Shatter Dead showing up as a nun in latex, a character named Mistress Mummy and Tina Krause playing “Bear Handler” and sings you into seeing her dancing bear.

You can get this from Saturn’s Core, a Vinegar Syndrome partner label.

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