Format: IFC on rockin’ flatscreen.
I’m not necessarily one to judge someone else’s idea of a horror movie, but The Ninth Gate is not an easy fit into the genre. I suppose, since the film deals overtly with Satan, that there is a horror element to it, but this is much more of a suspense and mystery film than anything else. The elements of the supernatural that pop up really only happen once or twice in the middle and then a bit more heavily at the end despite all of the Lucifer this and Lucifer that through the running time. Still, it’s shown up on one of my horror lists, and I am, as ever, a slave to the lists.
Along those same lines, it’s worth saying that Roman Polanski makes interesting horror movies, or movies that at least contain some horror elements. The Ninth Gate fits in nicely with that crop of pseudo-horror films in his filmography. This is a movie that goes more for unsettling and mildly creepy rather than outright scares. Polanski is good at that, and I like The Ninth Gate probably a little more than it warrants.
Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is a man who specializes in rare books. More specifically, he specializes in duping clueless owners who have come into possession of particular rare books, buying them for a vastly reduced price, and then selling them for a massive profit through his friend Bernie (James Russo). While unscrupulous, Corso has a reputation among serious collectors for being good at what he does and being able to find books that are desired. In that capacity he is contacted by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a man of seemingly limitless wealth. Balkan has come into possession of a book called The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, written by an occultist in the 17th century, allegedly with the direct collaboration of Lucifer himself. Only three copies of the book exist; Balkan has acquired one from a man who killed himself the following day.
Balkan believes that while there are three copies in the world that only one of them is genuine. He gives Corso carte blanche to travel to Europe to investigate the other two copies to see if he can determine which one is the real book and which are the forgeries. Carte blanche in this case includes all expenses paid, no matter what because Balkan wants those other two copies examined no matter what.
What unfolds is less horror and much more detective story. First into the mix is Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), the widow of the man who killed himself after selling the book to Balkan. She wants the book back and is willing to do anything to get it. Looking to keep the book safe, Corso stashes the book at Bernie’s store only to find Bernie murdered and hung in a manner reminiscent of one of the etchings in the book. Corso flees to Europe on Balkan’s dime and the mystery deepens.
Primary among the various mysteries is the continual presence of an unknown woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who always seems to be wherever Corso is and always at the right time. Unseen by anyone else, the woman displays some supernatural traits (specifically the ability to glide safely from high places) and seems to be inexorably tied to the book. Just as disturbing for Corso is that wherever he goes, a trail of body follows. Each time he examines a copy of the book, he notices that some of the engravings in each copy are different, and the owner of that copy ends up dead. Additionally, after each major break in his investigation, Balkan calls him, always seeming to know exactly what is going on.
I’ve seen The Ninth Gate a few times now, and while I like this movie, there’s a part of me that always feels like there’s so much more promise here than is actually delivered by the end. There are so many hints that it will get really scary and it never really does. It hints at it; it’s scary in the margins or if you stop to think about particular aspects of it, but it never really gets anywhere past being a little bit creepy.
Johnny Depp is fine in this, but for my money the two stars are Lena Olin and Frank Langella. I happen to like Lena Olin at this point in her career quite a bit, and she does not disappoint here. Frank Langella seems born to play this sort of role. He’s imposing and a little bit terrifying simply by slowing down his speech a little or pausing to take a breath. It’s a hell of a good performance in a film that honestly probably doesn’t deserve it that much.
Ultimately, The Ninth Gate is more disappointing than I’d like for a film that I really want to enjoy a lot. I love the idea behind it, but there are a lot of places it could go and simply doesn’t. That’s disappointing, coming from the guy who made Rosemary’s Baby. I think Polanski was going for the same vibe here, but didn’t get all the way there. There are flashes of it, but ultimately, it’s more an interesting idea worth investigating than it is scary.
Why to watch The Ninth Gate: Frank Langella is the most disturbing thing in a movie about Lucifer.
Why not to watch: It never quite gets to “scary.”