Tattooist, The (2007)

Director Peter Burger
Writers Mathew Grainger, Jonathan King
Starring Jason Behr, Mia Blake, David Fane, Robbie Magasiva, Caroline Cheong, Michael Hurst
Genre Revenant
Tagline Evil In Ink.

Talk us through it

U.S. tattoo artist Jake wanders the world checking out ethnic themes in tattoo design, stealing those designs for his own creations, and hanging at various tattoo events. At an expo in Singapore, after trying to heal a young Chinese boy with a medicinal inking, Jake stumbles into the world of traditional Samoan tattoo (tatau). For no apparent reason he steals a tatau device from a display case and thus unwittingly releases a vengeful spirit.

Jakes heads to Auckland, New Zealand, to return the stolen tatau artefact to the gorgeous Sina, and naturally they fall in love, much to the displeasure of various Samoans. To keep the wolf from the door Jake takes on a job with Crash, another tattoo artist with his own workshop, and starts inking clients. Seems it's not a good idea to get inked by a Seppo tattoist who steals tatau devices as pretty soon Jake's clients start to expire in freaky fashion. The vengeful spirit is finishing the tattoos Jake creates in a sort of all over fashion. A traditional revenant story ensues.


The Tattooist is the feature film debut for new Director on the block Peter Burger. Adding firepower to the movie are U.S. actor Jason Behr and Black Sheep (2007) helmer Jonathan King. The movie follows the traditions of the revenant subgenre but adds in a good old fashion ghost story mystery for the Audience to solve b efore the Director gets to the point. This is not a movie where you will have eveything worked out in the first ten minutes; Director Burger skillfully keeps things hidden till after the halfway point when you will have heavily invested in the ghostly colouring-in antics. It should be also pointed out that you are going to get a crash course into aspect of Samoan culture - who says you don't learn stuff from horror movies!

Burger opens his movie to a clear flashback to sometime in the past. A kid hiding in an unused basement is discovered by his father, who is clearly a religous fruitcake due to the large cross he wears and the fact that he starts off mouthing various tracts from the bible. Anyone else notice that the Fundos (Christing right Fundamentalists) have a tract for every conceivable occasion that just might involve someone enjoying themselves? Don't touch it in the shower if you have Fundo neighbours people, you heard it here first. The Kid has drawn a pentagram on his inside forearm - wow, good move considering Dad is a borderline sociopath. Naturally, being a caring Christian parent, Dad overreacts due to pentagrams being a sign of the Devil and not of pre-Christian cultures or anything, and proceeds to slice the offending skin from his son's arm. There's probably a Shakespearean anology there, but I'll leave it to the "critical" sites to fill in the blanks. We cut to the present and learn that this is a nihtmare the grown Jake is having of his childhood trauma. The Director actually nails it with the transition from dusty basement to modern apartment. Jake gets up and the camera draws back through his front window to show Jake 's apartment is in a high rise building, surronded by other high risers. A similar shot is used to effect by Verbanski in his remake The Ring, though I would have been high fiving Verbanski if he had of had Naomi in the same state of undress as Burger has Jason Behr in. Okay moving along here, forget I mentioned anything.

Notably the opening scene, besides explaining a scar on Jake's left forearm, appears to have no relevance to The Tattooist till the very end, when it ties in withe Samoan traditional belief systems and the overall plot devices used to get us to the resolution. Yes, The Tattooist is one of those nasty flicks that isn't going to neon sign post it's messages, you are going to have to think about what you have just watched.

Director Burger keeps things on a low simmer for the first half of his movie, pretty much what you would expect from a ghost mystery, but fires up the pace in the final half an hour or so as things take a turn for the worse. You will be with Jake as he attempts to solve the puzzle presented to him with a time limit very much in play. One of the strenghts of the Japanese revenant outing Ring was the seven day tim frame, Burger cuts that down somewhat but our hero very much knows the meter is on and the clock is ticking. Burger presents this via a number of victims meeting their demise off screen, rather than having some miscellaneous character serving no other purpose than being the savant favoured by Hammer Horror et al. Concise and ingenious filmmaking, nothing is being throw onto your screen to pad out time.

Writers Matthew Grainger abd Jonathan King, while presenting a concise look at one aspect of Samaoan culture - and boy, these dudes don't bother pissing around namby pamby tats - take time out of their busy schedules to touch base with the Christian church and science.

In some quarters The Tattooist is being attacked for a supposed anti-Christian message, but this really is slinging the arrows of outrageous reviewing at a target that doesn't exist. The Christian missionaries had an out of porportion impact on Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa during the late 19th century, with the church becoming a major focus in the lives of quite a percentage of Pacific Islanders.The Tattooist reflects this with Sina and Mr Va'a being steeped in the Christian family and looking for a saviour in Jesus. Ultimately, of course, the Christian church has no answers to a traditional Samoan curse and Jake must turn to the traditional thinking of Alipati, based as it is in the Samaon cultural imperatives of "tatau". Shame is worse than dying, to reach manhood the traditional tattoo must be completed. This isn't so much an attack on the Christina church, though it remains a viable target, but a re-affirmation that perhaps a vibrant traditional culture may have a few things right when it comes to attacks from the dark side. The Writers clearly have an issue with fundamental Christian sects,but this isn't being mirrored onto more mainstream Christian religous movements. Okay think I've laboured that point long enough to bore the pants off everyone, hey if Naomi is reading send photos.

For the first time in a horror movie I have finally seen a character immersed in science accepting that empirical knowledge isn't everything. Jake is in a hospital as Victoria suffers through the ravages of our demonic tattooist from the other side. A medical crach unit is unable to save her, with hospital staff notably shocked by the results of an attempted heart restart via paddles. Boom baby, oh crap! Jake flees the emergency room - civilians are allowed in emergency rooms in Kiwi hospitals? - but is stopped by a Doctor. After a short confrontation the Doctor allows Jake to leave, (remembering the demonic tattoo attack would appear to be some sort of virulent virus to the uninformed), contrary to expectations. Notably the Doctor is a Maori, another race steeped in in traditional belief systems, but more importantly, finally we see a man of medicine accept the unacceptable. Important development for the horror genre, and excellent work by the Writers and Director.

Okay am definitely overstaying my welcome here so let's cut to the chase. In summary, The Tattooist is tightly paced and well executed from a visual perspective.

Jason Behr (Jake), besides being the obligatory U.S Actor needed to get some action happening in North America, is excellently cast. Behr plays it low-key and laid-back, which was exactly what was needed in the role. Another aspect to having a U.S. lead was maybe to reflect upon Samoan culture being only a relatively recent, and welcome, inclusion in the New Zealand cultural melting pot. But hey, let's not get too deep here for fear of stepping into some brown stuff.

Mia Blane (Sina) is simply gorgeous, I could watch her all evening, with the added bonus that she can out act more noted leading ladies. I'm expecting to see a whole bunch more of Ms Blake in upcoming films from both Down Under and OS.

David Fane (Mr Va'a), Robbie Magasiva (Alipati), Caroline Cheong (Victoria), and Michael Hurst (Crash) aren't letting the home team down with each Actor nailing his/her role with relish.

Peter Scholes threw on a decent enough score, though Director Burger notably dispenses with it in some key scenes and allows more natural sound bites to have full impact. I was digging the score and have it noted down for purchase. Unfortunately we also get a couple of rap numbers, they actually do work given the grunge look of the movie, but I'm slightly biased against the musical genre. Hey Hammer, yo don't hurt them, is about the closest I want to get to the inner city ghetto! And before anyone asks, Vanilla Ice sucks the life out of the universe, who the hell brought that "if you have a problem I'll solve it" bollocks anyway?

Want a second opinion, additional details

Kiwi reviewer Andrew Hedley wasn't impressed, check Andrew's thoughts out here.

Excellent coverage of the movie at the ever reliable NZ Videos site, click through.

Summary Execution

I'm pretty much a sucker for a good ghost mystery and The Tattooist tapped its way into that good oil with very little issue. The characters are worth spending some time with, the pace is even, and pretty much you have to say the water is fine. Director Peter Burger delivered on the expectations I had going in and nailed the prerequisites for the particular subgenre he is working in here. Added bonus was finding out a bit more about more about one aspect of Samoan culture, when these guys get ink done they really get ink done. Burger aimed for the boundary, dropped the shot a fraction short, but still managed a four in my opinion. Opps, wait, different rating system here, eight arm tats out of ten then.

I actually don't have a whole bunch of trivia about this movie to slot in here. One thing that did surprise me post review was the negativity aimed at what after all is simply a ghost mystery. Seems your average reviewer would rather see some obnoxious Yank cutting a plant out of their leg than dial into an atmospheric ghost story. What ever floats your boat I guess.

If you like ghost stories in the British tradition then surprisingly you should grab a copy of The Tattooist as the movie will touch bases with your requirements. The film may be out of the Antipodes but at least it's being true to the traditions of the subgenre. Get some ink done.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

A classic ghost story that colours in what it promises and that doesn't go over the top.