Now available on DVD
Directed by Peter Burger
In The Illustrated Man (1969), an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s famed short story collection, Rod Steiger starred as a Depression-era drifter whose body revealed tales of the future through the astonishing tattoos that covered his flesh. Unfortunately, the first release from Ghost House Underground â the supernatural thriller The Tattooist â is the cinematic equivalent to those temporary tattoos found as prizes in Cracker Jack boxes.
When Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert announced that they’d be starting up their own production shingle, Ghost House Pictures, it seemed like a good bet for horror fans. After all, few others could claim as much success with genre fare as the makers of The Evil Dead series. And their long stints producing TV programs like Hercules, Xena, and American Gothic showed that even without Raimi in the director’s chair, their sensibilities would still show through. But in general, the films under the Ghost House label haven’t reflected any better understanding of genre fare than the offerings of other hit-or-miss outfits like Dark Castle and Platinum Dunes. Outside of the success of their first release in 2004 with The Grudge (their first actual production, Boogeyman, was the company’s second release) and 2007’s 30 Days of Night (a film that garnered some good notices but which I thought was as bad as anything that Ghost House has put its name on yet), Ghost House hasn’t become the reliable brand name that fans might’ve expected.
And yet, the news that Ghost House would be branching out into the direct-to-DVD market with a new division called Ghost House Underground still sounded promising. These would be films not produced by Ghost House, but handpicked by them for distribution â a set-up that seemed to promise some quality control. With all the independent productions in the world to cherry pick from, there ought to be a few gems waiting to find a distributor, right? But if The Tattooist is the best film that Raimi and Tapert could find to launch Ghost House Underground with, then that’s a much scarier thought than anything in the actual movie.
Written by Matthew Grainger and Jonathan King (writer/director of the generally well-received 2006 horror comedy Black Sheep) and directed by New Zealand television vet Peter Burger, The Tattooist is as tedious an eighty-nine minutes as I’ve ever spent. And while I can forgive the people behind The Tattooist for making it into an atrocious failure, it’s harder to forgive Raimi and Tapert for giving it a release. They should’ve had the sense to leave this one where they found it. The Tattooist is a movie that drops the ball at every juncture when it comes to creating any kind of tension or atmosphere. You know, the kind of things that one might look for in a horror movie. Putting this out under the Ghost House Underground label doesn’t say to the consumer “Hey, keep coming back to us for more thrills and chills,” it says “We just used some slick box art to rip you off! And we’ll do it again every chance we get!”
In a performance that boasts the kind of brooding intensity befitting a waiter at Applebee’s, Jason Behr (TV’s Roswell, Skinwalkers) stars as Jake Sawyer, a tattooist attending an expo in Singapore who’s something of a charlatan. He promotes his work as “Healing Tattoos” â he inscribes symbols on his customer’s skin that have alleged mystic properties. It’s all a con, but for Jack, it’s just part of making a living. But when he comes into contact with a group Samoan tattoo artists at the expo who hold a more committed view of their craft (known as tatau), Jack is taken aback. He’s also smitten by Sina (Mia Blake), the cousin of proud Alipati (Robbie Magasiva), one of the Samoans. Jake impetuously steals a hammer and chisel used by these Samoans and accidentally cuts himself with them â a wound that is suspiciously slow to heal. In time, looking to pursue Sina’s affections, Jake heads to her native land of New Zealand to find her and return the stolen items.
Once in New Zealand, Jack hooks up with an old friend, gets a job at their busy tattoo parlor and keeps an eye out for Sina. The two do come together but the fact that everyone that Jake has tattooed since cutting himself on the Samoan’s tools has died a grisly death might come between their burgeoning romance. Especially when Jake has applied some fresh ink to Sina herself. And if this sounds like the makings of an exciting horror movie to you, then you deserve to have the word ‘sucker’ tattooed on your forehead post-haste.
On the surface, it’s easy to see why Ghost House went with The Tattooist as their first Underground release. Like the Grudge films, it features an American in a foreign land encountering a supernatural evil tied to that land’s indigenous beliefs (whereas The Grudge was all about rage persisting past death, The Tattooist is about an unresolved shame causing a threat to the living world) so there’s some sense of thematic continuity. I’m sure the thought was that anyone who had enjoyed The Grudge and its sequel would be likely to find The Tattooist interesting as well. But unfortunately, The Tattooist was made by people who completely forgot they were making a horror movie.
With all its set-pieces awash in inky CGI blackness, The Tattooist never goes for the kind of vivid EC Comics type of ghoulishness that might’ve made this storyline into twisted fun (HBO’s Tales from the Crypt sported its own tattoo-themed installment, “On A Dead Man’s Chest”). And there’s also far too much exposition burdening this film. As a rule of thumb, I believe that supernatural stories should go light on their backstories in order to be effective. That’s why the best horror movies are always the most direct. I’ve always loved the explanation for the haunting in Poltergeist (1982), for example â in order to save a buck the real estate developers moved the headstones but left the bodies. That’s it. So simple. Just one line of dialogue. Too much time spent on explaining ‘why’ works against sustaining a sense of disbelief and The Tattooist is especially ponderous in this regard.
While in Christopher Nolan’s modern noir Memento (2000), Guy Pearce’s haunted character used tattoos to help himself remember, The Tattooist serves the opposite function for Ghost House. Instead of reinforcing Ghost House as a brand, it’s like a tattoo made with invisible ink.