By some inauspicious coincidence, several movies opening this particular Friday the 13th appear to be variations, grim or facetious, on the eternal theme of folie a deux. The weirdest, sorriest variation of all must be the case of Bruce Dern as a lonely, loony tattoo artist and Maud Adams as the high-fashion model he adores and abducts in "Tattoo." A hybrid of "The Collector" and "Taxi Driver," it succeeds in combining the worst aspects of both sources. In addition, Dern's pathetically misguided attempt to echo Robert De Niro's performance as the solitary psychopath in "Taxi Driver" exposes an already hopeless plot to devastating ridicule.
The movie looks potentially intriguing for perhaps a reel. There's a voluptuous, dreamlike opening sequence, shot in Japan, in which a pageant of tattooed men is witnessed by Dern, an American serviceman glimpsed among the teeming spectators. The subsequent exposition neatly establishes his character, Karl Kinsky, as the proprietor of a tattoo parlor in Hoboken. A figure of some standing in his offbeat sector of the decorative arts, he is a reclusive, neurotic personality.
The first wrong move occurs after an adroit series of overlapping dissolves, by which director Bob Brooks conveys Dern from Hoboken to a rambling old beach-front house in Ocean City, N.J., where Kinsky's mother has just died. All at once the objectivity is disrupted by a subjective blast from the past -- Kinsky recalling the scolding voice of his late, despised dad. The recollection prompts him to drive a fist through the glass cover of a family photo -- himself as a little boy. "Uh-oh," you say to yourself, and the movie soon degenerates into a solemn confirmation of that "uh-oh."
Kinsky has been approached by a shy young flunky (very attractively played by Rikke Borge, the daughter of Victor Borge) who represents a fashion photographer (Leonard Frey) planning a lavish magazine spread with tattooed models. Fascinated by a picture of one of the models, Maddy, played by the splendidly proportioned and photogenic Maud Adams, gloomy Kinsky agrees to design and apply temporary tattoos for the shooting session.
When the day's glamorous work ends, Maddy, rather put out with her boyfriend, a thoughtless jazz musician, asks Kinsky to take her to dinner. Slower to catch on than the Cybill Shepherd character in "Taxi Driver," Maddy overlooks the creepy nature Kinsky shows on this first date. It takes a second blighted dinner date, at his place, before she realizes that there might be something wacky about this tall, sorrowful shyboots, who likes brandy Alexanders and throws moralistic temper tantrums when she talks loose and liberated.
Belatedly, Maddy tries to give her incompatible new admirer the brushoff. Driven to desperation, Kinsky sneaks into her apartment and spirits her off to the abandoned house in Ocean City. There he adorns Maddy's sedated body with permanent tattoos, transforming her into a combination of sexual slave and masterpiece-in-progress.
Naturally, little good can be expected of such a captive, unhealthy intimacy. Apart from conning Maud Adams into posing in the nude, this twist does nothing to enhance the erotic melodrama either. One of the problems on the old willing-suspension-of-disbelief side of the ledger is Dern's lackluster quality of menace. Kinsky really seems too much of a sad sack to impose any sort of discipline on Maddy. In fact, it would make more erotic sense if he were playing her helpless, groveling slave.
This hitch is spotlighted by one of the nastier interludes in the sordid spectacle. It's hinted and later confirmed that Kinsky suffers from impotence. Only voyeurism seems to afford him relief, but when he orders his beloved captive to gratify him in this indirect fashion, she recoils, screaming endearments like "You freak! ---- me, you freak!" You don't doubt for a second that Adams, a very healthy specimen of womanhood, could mop up the joint with quivering, apologetic Dern. Nevertheless, the story maunders on. By the time the heroine finally seizes an opportunity to liberate herself, she acts madly fond of the poor deluded fruitcake.
This enigmatic change of heart appears to have something to do with Kinsky's untimely recovery of potency -- on the threshold of death. While acknowledging that this extreme conceit may have a fatal allure for sadomasochistic losers, one feels no empathy and detects no reason to take the dreadful consequences seriously. In both movies preposterous circumstances gum up the morbid works. Venturing off the erotic deep end without benefit of psychological life preservers, "Tattoo" merely sinks from a floundering "Uh-oh" to a suicidal "P.U."