Monday, October 31, 2011

30 Days of Fright - 30: The Tattooist

I've often considered getting a tattoo but for the longest time was never able to decide what I'd get done. There were some ideas I liked but they didn't rock my world sufficiently to endure the pain or cost of getting it done. When I settled on the avatar I use (as can be seen here) it occurred to me that it would make for a great tat. But, after some careful consideration, I came to the conclusion that, regardless of which way he intended to lean, it would probably be best not to show up in front of St. Peter sometime in the future with a big fuck-off tattoo of Satan down my back.

At a tattoo expo in Singapore Jake Sayer (Jason Behr) is The Tattooist (2007) with an interest in the healing power of certain patterns and designs associated with native cultures around the world. His deep interest in ink came from a nasty incident when he was younger when his father, a deeply religious man, took a knife to Jake’s arm to remove a tattoo of a pentagram he’d had done. Now grown, Jake has developed a reputation for his ideas on tattoo healing, though it’s not entirely clear if he truly believes or whether it’s just an angle he’s playing though he does apply a tattoo to a sick young boy whose father believes.

While in Singapore, Jake encounters a young woman he’s attracted to who’s part of a group of New Zealand based Samoans, one of which is a tattooist and is currently working on the pe'a, a large tattoo that some young Samoan men receive to mark the passage into manhood. Jake is fascinated by the designs and curious if there’s a healing side to the whole thing (which is odd because it’s really painful), and keen to incorporate the Samoan material into his gig he steals a traditional tattooing tool that was in a display case by the Samoan’s stall at the expo.

As he leaves the expo, the distraught father of the young lad Jake had tattooed arrives to tell him that the boy died and that he was now interested in helping Jake meet the same fate sooner rather than later. Flustered by this, Jake drops his gear and as he struggles to gather up his belongings he cuts his hand on the tool he’d lifted from the Samoans.

Under a little pressure in Singapore, Jake decides to travel to New Zealand, which is one of the places in the world where he learned his trade, and while there he can find out a bit more about the Samoan tradition, and maybe get off with yer one but only after returning the stolen tool as his conscious is playing up since he nicked it, giving him nightmares and not letting his hand heal properly. Once he gets to Auckland, Jake hooks up with one of his old mentors who loans him a place to stay and the use of a car and he sets about finding the Samoans while paying his way as a tattoo artist.

Jake manages to find the Samoans and gets the tool back to them via the girl he encountered in Singapore. She brings him to a ceremony to mark the completion of one of the giant tattoos that the lads get and there he meets her uncle, a high up mucky muck in the Samoan community. After leaving the Samoans, Jake is dragged to a party being held for one of his customers. Jake isn’t comfortable so he leaves, right before the guy he’d drawn on dies mysteriously in a swimming pool, apparently coughing up ink and other nasty stuff. When Jake finds out about the death he’s more than a little shocked as the tattoo he gave seems to be the root cause of the death, and the other people he inked are suffering from an ailment where their tattoos are spreading painfully across their bodies before killing them horrifically. Jake slowly wakes up to the fact that the contents of his nightmares, the strange spread of his tattoos, and the deaths are all liked to the tool he stole, and that it has unleashed something far worse than a nasty infection...

Jake dies a little bit inside as he applies his 1000th tramp stamp

The Tattooist is at its heart a simple vengeful spirit type movie that has drawn inspiration not only from the traditions of the Samoan people living in New Zealand but also other films that are based on a similar idea. The Tattooist has elements of The Ring present in the storyline, particularly with regards to a piece of technology unleashing a naughty ghost with that has badness in mind. However, the culture of the New Zealand Samoans provides that backdrop and therefore context for the story is the real influence at play in this film, which reminds me very much of how The Serpent and the Rainbow put the culture of Haiti front and centre. Just like Serpent, The Tattooist focuses on the cultural aspects of the people in the film and, just like in Serpent, uses an American outsider someone audiences can relate to as they find out about the natives at the same time as he does.

The strength of The Tattooist is also its single greatest weakness. As fascinating as the cultural aspects of tattooing are they cannot cover the fact that the story is pretty weak and has been done lots of times before. The originality of the tattoo bits are in direct opposition to the unoriginality of the vengeful ghost. It's as if the film-makers were sitting around one day (somewhere in New Zealand) after they'd come into some lucky funding (most likely from the New Zealand national lottery or whatever) and were kicking around ideas for a film and one of them had just gotten a tattoo of a Samoan dude, so he (or she) said "how about making a film about Samoan tattoos?" and all the rest of them said "Yeah! Great idea! We can get all sorts of cool ethnic stuff into it!" and that was a far as they got with their idea for a film until they actually had to sit down and write a script and one of them threw in a bit about a ghost who was pissed off about their death.

In terms of performances Jason Sawyer is a perfectly competent lead in a small film like this but whether he'd be able for a bigger production is questionable. For me, the really impressive performance came from Mia Blake as Sina, the girl Jake fancies. The other actors and actresses were all functional and there were a couple of faces you might recognise from TV shows that need someone from New Zealand from time to time.

The Tattooist is, to be fair, a weak film. But while it's filled with conveniences (like open doors and kids who can channel spirits at the right time) which are symptoms of a story in need of much deeper development, I can't bring myself to dislike the film. The Tattooist is a movie very much in the same vein as The Serpent and the Rainbow but that's fine, because Serpent managed to tap into that sense of the unknown in order to build a horror story, the big difference being that Serpent used Voodoo which is a lot scarier than inky ghosts, as fun and all as they are. The main fright in The Tattooist is that when people go in to get ink from Jake, they're not asked what they want, he just drew whatever he fucking pleased...

Two Thumbs Up for The Tattooist

Here are some links for you to tattoo on your forehead:
Official Site: