Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Tattooist (2008)

I’ve always been enamored of tattoo culture and have a few of my own tattoos I’m pretty proud of (always planning on getting more, though), so when I heard about a horror film called The Tattooist I was overly eager to check it out. Everyone looks hotter with tattoos (the film’s poster proved that itself) so I went into The Tattooist thinking that if little else, at least there’d be some wicked-cool tattoos to check out. Surprisingly, The Tattooist was an entertaining flick and not just because of the tattoos on display, though it is a stretch to call it a horror film.

Tattoo artist Jake Sawyer (Jason Behr, looking smokin’ hot) is renowned for using his tattoos to heal people and utilizes symbols from many various cultures and religions to do so. At a tattoo convention in Singapore, he is intrigued by a group of Samoans performing their traditional tatau on a man. Well, truthfully he is intrigued by a woman, Sina (Mia Blake), that is part of the Samoans group. He ends up swiping an old, ritualistic tattoo tool from the Samoans, but when he cuts himself on the tool, he unwittingly releases a vengeful spirit that kills anyone he tattoos by basically flooding their bodies with tattoo ink.

Before Jake realizes he’s got a demon on his back, he heads down to New Zealand to catch up with the Samoans to learn more about their tattooing practices and also to return the tool, which has brought him some wicked visions. He’s also keen on reuniting with Sina. He gets a job and a place to live through an old tattooing buddy at a tattoo shop called Bedlam, but when he starts tattooing clients, they end up dying grisly deaths soon after.

Can Jake figure out how to stop this curse and figure out just who the spirit is before more people die, including the newly inked Sina?

This New Zealand film must be given credit for having a pretty original premise. It’s not too often that you see a horror film whose basis is cursed tattoos or Samoan tribal customs, but The Tattooist manages to do both. Writers Jonathan King (whose name might be familiar because he wrote and directed the hilarious Black Sheep) and Matthew Granger (who was also a contributor to the Black Sheep script) do a great job of acquainting the audience with both the tattoo and Samoan cultures. The fascinating world of Samoan tatau (the originators of the word “tattoo” and perhaps of the art form itself) was especially interesting, delving into their culture and beliefs on the sacred art of tatau and how it is passed from one generation to the next. Any misuse of it can bring great shame on a family, a theme that runs throughout the film and weighs importantly on the climax.

Though I found the film to be engaging, it was pretty tame for my tastes. The R-rating it received mainly comes from the language used throughout the film and not from too much gore or nudity. It really feels like a PG-13 film at heart, with not too many scares or gross-outs for hardcore horror fans. The story played out slowly, more like a thriller or mystery rather than a straight-up horror movie, which will no doubt annoy some. Initially, this lack of scares annoyed me too, but I have to admit I did get wrapped up in the story and did enjoy it for what it was.

One thing that added to the enjoyment of the story was the well-rounded set of characters. Jack Sawyer, played by Jason Behr, comes complete with a troubled childhood (he was raised by a religious zealot that condemned his tattoos and actually cut one off his skin) while Sina, played by Mia Blake, is the strong yet silent type that plays against her cultural role by inviting a white boy into her Samoan home (much to the chagrin of her uncle and cousins). I also enjoyed the little boy who acted as a medium for the spirit to talk through and his two older homies. They had one sweet ride…

The actors all held their own and I can’t say I have any complaints with anyone’s acting. Maybe Jason Behr’s rock-hard abs were distracting me too much, but I think everyone did a great job.

The deaths, though not overly scary or gory, were still pretty cool. The victims’ tattoos would start spreading and branching out across their bodies, then they would start to cough up black ink and eventually die painfully in an inky, bloody pool. The special FX when this happened was flawless and extremely well done. Glimpses of the spirit inflicting the pain can also be seen in several instances (reminiscent of Asian horror spookfests), and these scenes are pretty creepy, but still not scary. The spirit itself looked very cool, though, and not at all hokey. It’s too bad director Peter Burger played it safe and didn’t really give us more of these visually arresting and horrifying images in The Tattooist, which is a pity because the solid story was there. It was also strange how the film was shot in bright, cheery colors as opposed the the dark and drab atmosphere most horror movies are filmed in. This bright and cheery exterior really dampened the overall “scare factor” of the film.

Thought not a very scary horror movie, The Tattooist does have its moments where the story sucks you in and some pretty revealing tidbits on the Samoan culture and tatau. It’s not a bad way to spend an hour and a half, just don’t expect to be scared.

Available from Amazon!

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