Let’s call it synchronicity. Last week, I was looking through the new DVD releases on Netflix, and I came across “The Tattooist,” a supernatural horror film about an American tattooist (Jason Behr) who, after swiping an ancient Samoan tattooing tool unleashes an avenging “evil” spirit. Being a connoisseur of supernatural horror, I considered adding it to my queue but hesitated. After all, most low budget supernatural horror films are poorly written and acted. Many flat out stink. Not willing to take the risk, I sent myself a note, saying “Hmmm.” Earlier this week, I was looking at the new releases wall at Hollywood Video, and a DVD box caught my eye – there it was again “The Tattooist.” I still didn’t rent it. A few days ago, a Netflix friend sent me a note about, you got it, “The Tattooist.” He enjoyed it, and said I would too. Giving in, I ordered the DVD, and watched it today. I loved it. I guess it pays to take a risk from time to time.
Written by Matthew Grainger and Jonathan King – the latter wrote and directed the black comedy horror film “Black Sheep” – “The Tattooist” focuses on Jake Sawyer, a guy who made a name for himself in the tattoo world by stealing someone else’s design and passing it off on his own. Because he’s not the real deal, he’s found himself in Singapore, peddling tattoos that he’s stolen from ancient cultures and marketing them as being curative. One day he’s working at a tattoo expo, and he spies Sina (Mia Blake), an attractive woman sporting a hibiscus in her hair. He follows her into a tented area where a group of Samoan men are assisting Alipati (Robbie Magasiva), a traditionally trained tufuga who is using an Uhi, which is a special tattooing comb-like device, to tap a tattoo design into a “customer.”
Unlike Jack, Alipati believes that a tattoo isn’t something you choose; it’s something you earn. It’s also a rite of passage. Alipati explains that one gets a pe’a, a tattoo that covers the body from mid-torso to the knees, to honor one’s family, and if that person fails to complete it once it’s started, shame falls upon him and his kin. Jack doesn’t really “get” what he’s being told, and on his way out, steals an Uhi for himself. As he exits the building, one of his former customers attacks him, and he drops the implement. As soon as he picks it up, it stabs him in his hand. As time progresses, he begins having horrible visions and dreams. Believing that they stem from the Uhi, he travels to New Zealand to return it. Once there things only get worse … people start dying horrible inky deaths.
As supernatural horror films go “The Tattooist” isn’t all that scary. You will find a few creepy moments, especially near the end of the film, and one pretty cringe-inducing death scene in an emergency room, but that wasn’t why I enjoyed it so much. I love learning about other cultures and for some reason foreign horror films are places where you can immerse yourself in some really unusual and sometimes taboo subjects, including abortion, incest, cannibalism, etc. “The Tattooist” isn’t quite that twisted, however, it does expose its audience to Samoan tattooing practices and designs. And on the plus side, it’s all authentic. The underlying theme of the film comes straight out of Samoan belief. As it was explained by a cultural adviser, when a person steals a design or an implement or even when he performs traditional Samoan practices without the proper training, he can become cursed. (In Samoan, it’s called lama avea.)
If you watch the DVD extras, you learn that not only did director Peter Burger consult with Samoan tattoo artists but his project also received the official OK by the Samoan people. He and Behr were even made chiefs! Finally, the director’s full name is Peter Meteherangi Tikao Burger, and he is of Maori and Lithuanian descent. The last thing he wants to do is offend his people. True this isn’t a PBS special by any stretch of the imagination, but “The Tattooist” is an entertaining way to learn about Samoan culture.
Behr isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he turns in a better performance here than he did in “D-Wars.” (I know that isn’t saying much.) Upstaging him are his supporting cast, many of who are Samoan, most notably Magasiva, David Fane, who plays Aleki Va’a, the respected Samoan elder and Sina’s uncle; and Nathaniel Lees, who plays Mr. Perenese, the patriarch of an ostracized family. All three men starred in the 2006 box office smash (in New Zealand) “Sione’s Wedding,” known in the U.S. as “Samoan Wedding.” Blake is a natural actress, but can’t produce much believable heat with Behr, whose upper body tattoo, designed by the incredible Auckland tattoo artist Dean Sacred, is really the highlight of the film. Thanks to at least one all-nude and a variety of no-shirt shots, we get many chances to admire Sacred’s work.
From its DVD cover, “The Tattooist” looks like straight-to-rental fare when it is in actuality a pleasant surprise. Those who will appreciate it most are tattoo enthusiasts, horror fans who don’t need to be scared, and those viewers who like to immerse themselves in offbeat and off-the-track films that just might teach them something. Returning to my earlier comment about synchronicity, not four hours after I watched “The Tattooist,” the History Channel aired “Ancient Ink,” a two-hour travel documentary during which host Craig Reynolds explored tattooing. His first stop was New Zealand. Believe it or not, this small section confirmed everything I had just heard in “The Tattooist.” How awesome is that? OK, so I’m a nerd. In all honesty, I have never watched a film that made me so interested in tattooing nor one that revived my desire to get a tattoo. Albeit without a stolen Uhi, thank you very much.
Peter Burger (director) / Matthew Grainger, Jonathan King (screenplay)
CAST: Jason Behr … Jake Sawyer
Mia Blake … Sina
David Fane … Mr. Va’a
Robbie Magasiva … Alipati
Caroline Cheong … Victoria
Michael Hurst … Crash
Nathaniel Lees … Mr. Perenese