I’m pleased to welcome back Mark Spangler who graciously submitted this spectacular retro-review of a film I haven’t seen since it hit theaters twenty years ago. It’s been a few years since his last piece on Once Upon a Time in the West and, if you read that brilliant bit of writing, you know why I was delighted when he reached out again!
At first glance, the raps on Roman Polanski’s 1999 devil-worshipping opus The Ninth Gate ring true… slow pacing, shopworn material, and most importantly, uninspired acting paired with an unsatisfying ending. This reviewer, at first glance, had to agree, but a chance encounter with a two-dollar DVD at a second-hand store provided an opportunity to replay the movie and allowed for some second thoughts on this Johnny Depp oddity. This film, upon further review, it would seem, has aged well and is a worthy successor to the embattled director’s 1968, near-classic Rosemary’s Baby.
When Polanksi – who handles both producing and directing chores in this project with a smooth professionalism – began work on this film, it had been nearly thirty years since his “Baby” shocked theatre-goers in the late sixties. While Mia Farrow’s cries of “Look at its eyes!” have not worn well over the years, over two decades have passed since the camera’s rolled on this newer film of cultish devil-worship, and this attempt has aged much better.
Depp was a tad too young for the role of Dean Corso, a scruffy book dealer who swindles clients out of their masterpieces for a fraction of their real value, then resells at a handsome, if somewhat dirty, profit. The comically brushed gray at his temples did little to hide the problem of Depp being out of-his-depth as a middle-aged book dealer. To compensate for his youthful appearance, Depp plays the character of Corso as a wise-ass, travel-worn veteran of book wars who is far too weary for his age. None-the-less, he manages to pull off the role, mainly because the object of his quarry, a series of books entitled “The Nine Gates of the Shadow Kingdom” has him, and us, guessing at every turn. I won’t be popping any balloons, however, by revealing that only one of the copies of the book Corso is seeking is the one, true tome that unlocks the gates of hell since it was the only copy penned by Lucifer himself.
What works in this movie, and what is so much fun in subsequent re-visits to it, is its Hitchcockian-style atmosphere of dread, aided by the brilliantly haunting soundtrack by the late Polish composer, Wojciech Kilar. Kilar’s work would make a Jif commercial seem mysteriously engrossing. It’s almost enough for us to forgive the fact that Corso refuses to believe in the power of what he is fooling with, even when dead bodies start piling up like chips in a Pringles can. Why, oh, why doesn’t our hero see what is so glaringly obvious to us, and everyone around him? That is, those that haven’t already sealed their fate with Beezlebub. A weak introduction, establishing Corso as a confirmed non-believer is supposed to answer this question, but just as there are no atheists in foxholes, realists are in short supply when dealing with devil-worshipping cults, it just takes the hard-edged Corso far longer than it does us to see it.
A big plus was the casting of Frank Langella as the billionaire satanist Boris Balkan, recipient of the coolest villain name this side of Lex Luthor. Langella is well-known to horror aficionados as the romantic lead in the hit-and-miss adaptation of Dracula, directed by John Badham in 1979. Langella adds a bit of devilishly fun wickedness to any role he accepts, and he excels here. One of the picture’s negatives is the limited amount of screen time allowed to him, and his elegant baritone, by the Enrique Urbizu screenplay.
The plot involves Balkan’s attempt to find all three of the existing volumes of the previously mentioned satanic ritual book. Balkan has a fatal attraction with the written word and will stop at nothing to obtain the two versions of the book that have eluded him. His one desire is to determine if the book in his possession is in fact, the real deal, the other two being clever – and powerless – forgeries. Only the authentic book of mumbo-jumbo has what it takes to summon the lord of the underworld. Why, one might ask, would he simply not just cook up the ingredients with the book he has and see if the devil’s food cake rises? Alas, that is not for us to decide in this stylish if uneven genre movie.
Corso’s journey takes him across the pond, where director Polanski is still free to make movies without fear of donning a bright, orange jumpsuit (a suit he most assuredly deserves), and this makes for a lush canvas of beautiful European locales… France, Spain, and Portugal to be specific. Just as lovely is the actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who, more than once, rescues the protagonist from certain death with her martial arts (among other) skills. Unbeknownst to Corso, Seigner has been on his trail, for her own interests, from the moment he signed on with Balkan, and no, she is not what she seems at all either. We’re not sure exactly what she is, and the staircase scene will have you rewinding several times to make sure what you just saw was what you just saw.
The film’s final battle between Balkan and Corso (who now believes, you’d better believe it!) is weak and filled with small, cheesy special effects which look out of place in a film that is otherwise so stylishly staged. Much like Val Lewton’s poverty-row special effects limitations, we never get to actually see the Prince of Darkness in this movie, and just like Lewton’s RKO masterpieces, here too we are far better off for it. This brings to mind another film that failed in this regard… this critic falls squarely in the camp that says Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon would have been far better off without the monster being shown, and this movie does well enough on its own that we don’t need to visually see a red-faced, horned devil to believe he is real. (There are many similarities between these two pictures, both outstanding in their own right, the former’s monster puppet notwithstanding). We do not need to see Satan because we observe his presence in the torn and tattered human beings who call on his name. This movie is littered with them… we see it in Balkan’s cold, soulless eyes, in Corso’s lonely disbelief, in the wheelchair-bound characters like the Baroness, owner of one of the book’s copies, and in all the other characters whose misshapen bodies are strewn about the continent, mute testimony to their warped belief system of evil. It is a belief we and Depp must acknowledge if we are to find redemption in the unlikely hero of Dean Corso.
The pluses of this movie outweigh its mysteriously bad negatives; i.e., why is a book expert like Corso allowed to constantly smoke cigarettes while he handles rare and valuable works? If, as a child, I didn’t wash my hands like a surgeon before eating my spaghettios, my mother had involuntary seizures! Where then, is said book expert’s white gloves or jeweler’s eye when examining rare, old book paper? Polanksi’s eye for detail fails him miserably in these areas, but again, this is compensated for by what he does get right, which is just about everything else. There is a mounting sense of tension and terror as Corso gets closer and closer to solving the mystery of the books, and we wonder, exactly when will he finally see the light and realize he is dealing with powers of evil beyond his imagination?
Polanski’s eye for the macabre is a perfect match for Kilar’s haunting score and you, dear reader, will be hearing this wickedly lilting soundtrack in your mind for a very long time to come after seeing this picture. The Ninth Gate is not a perfect movie, but it is a perfect companion for a dark and stormy night, when we need to be reminded there are real Balkin’s out there, in the worlds of business, religion, and politics, capable of doing just about anything to get their way. We know it’s all fun, silly nonsense; but if the Ninth Gate shows us anything, it is the dangers of the true believer and their ability to malform reality to fit their own, twisted agenda.