- Year: 1999
- Director: Roman Polanski
- Starring: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin
The Ninth Gate is not Roman Polanski’s most famous film involving the Devil. I could have reviewed Rosemary’s Baby, but everyone’s seen it, and the lead character is not really the Faust of that story. Polanski obviously knew how to do supernatural horror well, as well as detective noir (Chinatown), so bringing those two elements together in The Ninth Gate only seemed natural.
Johnny Depp portrays Dean Corso, a book dealer who specializes in ripping people off. Corso is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a book collector who specializes in books about the Devil, to authenticate his copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows. Written by a 17th century Satanist, The Nine Gates is a book adapted by one allegedly written by the Devil himself, which if used right can conjure him up. Three copies exist, and Balkan claims only one is real.
Is this a dumb premise? I mean, there are literally engravings in the book engraved LCF, like an artist would sign his initials. On the other hand, it is not the most far-fetched premise in this Match-Up. Just listen to some of these—the Devil hires a private investigator, the Devil invites his son to join his law firm, the Devil faces an American Congressman in a supernatural court. There is a suspension of disbelief in these movies, regardless of your views of the spiritual world, so a book written by the Devil isn’t all that odd.
Corso quickly learns that there are people who will do anything to get their hands on the book. Balkan had purchased his from Andrew Telfer (Willy Holt), but it’s revealed that it was Telfer’s wife Liana (Lena Olin) who was the real Satanist, and that led to Andrew’s suicide. In an absolutely ridiculous scene, Liana tries to seduce Corso for the book, and although they have sex, he keeps the book. She then hisses at him, because apparently that’s scary. It’s weird.
The other two copies are in Europe, however, so Corso does a lot of traveling. Victor Fargas (Jack Taylor) owns one of the copies in his small but valuable library. Fargas doesn’t seem to have any wish to summon the Devil, but instead only owns the book for its rarity. Corso discovers that the copy is identical to Balkan’s except for one major detail. Of the nine engravings in Balkan’s, three are initialed LCF. In Fargas’ copy, three different engravings are initialed LCF.
Balkan tells Corso over the phone to do anything he can to get Fargas’ copy, but Corso mentions that Fargas said he would never sell it for any price. The next day, a mysterious girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) leads Corso back to Fargas’ house, where Fargas has been murdered, the LCF engravings ripped out of his book, and the rest of the book burned in the fire. Well, we’re about one act into the movie and the mystery’s already been solved for us. Barring any major twists, it’s clear already that Balkan killed Fargas and is looking simply to get the nine true engravings and frame Corso (or perhaps Liana, I suppose) for any crimes he commits. Corso is either unaware of this, or the money tempts him to stay in, so he visits Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), the owner of the third copy. She’s killed too and the engravings are ripped out, moving along…
Liana and her demonic henchman eventually steal the book from Corso, so Corso and the girl (she’s never named) follow them to an old country house where a Satanic mass is taking place. Here’s where the film gets really stupid. Yes, it was slow and fairly lifeless up until this point, but at least it was clearly going somewhere. First of all, this cult ritual is not even remotely creepy, but instead looks like a book club where raincoats are the required uniform.
Second, after Liana’s henchman is unsuccessful in killing Corso and the girl, they just walk into the ritual with their faces in full view!
Liana is the one in the front of the room. Plus, there’s like, what, 30 people in the room? Corso is clearly not just going to disappear in the crowd. It reminded me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz where the characters sneak in to the Witch’s castle, except those costumes hid their identities better… and one of them was a clumsy, blubbering lion!
Balkan shows up and calls the whole thing mumbo-jumbo, saying they’ve exploited the book’s true meaning and turned into an excuse for an orgy. I get that the film is trying to say something about religion here to an extent, but in the midst of a scene that makes no plot-sense, it doesn’t land. Balkan then kills Liana in front of everyone, scares the worshipers of by saying “Boo,” and leaves with all nine engravings.
Corso follows Balkan to an abandoned castle, trying to get him to pay up, but Balkan is too obsessed with summoning the Devil. Corso gets stuck in a trapdoor and watches as Balkan performs the ritual. So, we’re finally at the scene the film has been building up too, right? What’s the big moment in this movie? Frank Langella setting himself on fire, claiming he is summoning the Devil and is immune to the flames.
Corso maneuvers his way through the trap door, takes the engravings, and shoots Balkan. The girl shows up outside the castle where she and Corso have sex, the castle in the background still burning, because good lighting I guess. The girl then reveals that one of Balkan’s engravings was a fake, which there has not been a single clue pointing towards, and that the real one is at a bookshop Corso visited early in the movie.
The true engraving shows a woman, who looks very much like Seigner’s character, outside the castle. Corso returns to the castle, which is now aglow with a supernatural light, and he enters. FADE TO WHITE.
I have rarely, if ever, felt this empty after watching a movie. There are so many problems with this ending. Let’s start with the biggest one—why did Corso want to enter the ninth gate anyway? He goes from having no interest in it at all to suddenly just wanting to go through. It’s made clear over and over again that he is only in this case for the money and perhaps to see some rare books. He is clearly unfazed by the various occult stuff throughout the movie, but then all of a sudden he just decides “Yeah, why not?” That is not character development, but rather a complete 180 with zero explanation.
Second, the road to entering the ninth gate is a really strange one. So you have to have no interest in it to begin with, find someone who really does want it, let him come really close to finding it, standby as he fails to perform the ritual correctly, kill him, and take the manuscripts, have sex with a demon who might actually be the Devil, find the true final engraving, and go back to the castle and walk in? Well, I suppose that is nine steps.
Finally, there is no resolution whatsoever. If you’ve read my other posts, you know I have no problems with somewhat ambiguous endings like Eyes Wide Shut or Donnie Darko, but this is a cop-out. Sure, Corso walks into another plane of existence, but why do we care? There are plenty of stories that end with a character entering enlightenment, sometimes without a lot of questions answered, but are those are done with effort and care for the characters.
Take for example, in perhaps their first comparison in history, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (some spoilers here). In the third book in the Narnia series The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (just skip the film version), Reepicheep, the second funniest talking rodent in entertainment, dreams of entering another world.
Through the entire book, Reepicheep talks of Aslan’s country, the Narnia equivalent of Heaven. The Dawn Treader sails nearly to the end of the flat Narnian world, and Reepicheep sails off by himself to find it. We the reader don’t follow him there, but it doesn’t matter. He’s already in heaven, because he knows he’s on his way. We don’t have to see him get there, because his pure joy has already been reached. It’s been his greatest desire for the whole journey, and now it’s been granted. It’s the simplest of character arcs, but at least it is one.
For something a little more complex, take astronaut Dave Bowman from 2001. He gets taken to another plane of existence at the end of the movie, even though he didn’t know he wanted it. 2001 is an ambiguous movie on the whole, so you can make your own interpretations, but I believe the enlightenment is Dave’s reward from a higher power for finally controlling technology. He has finally evolved, and is ready to see something no human ever has. Once again, this is an arc. He learns something, he grows, and he is enlightened.
When Dean Corso enters the ninth gate, who cares? He wasn’t even interested in it until 5 minutes prior. The film is not about “the journey,” because it’s all been a fairly cliched buildup to the actual entering of the ninth gate. When you don’t show us anything of what he sees, it’s merely pulling the rug out of from under us. I’ve seen reviews from critics who like the film, but no one defends this ending.
If Depp perhaps played the slightest bit of emotion into this character, maybe we would be invested, but I still don’t think so. Basically, every main character is a horrible person. You’re not going to make an audience care when it’s a bland protagonist involving himself in a world of murderous Satanists vs. other murderous Satanists. Corso has no character at all, except that he’s greedy and horny, so why are we supposed to like him? Honestly, the only important character I cared about was Fargas, because he was simply a book collector who was in over his head.
The film poses an even bigger question, though, than what Corso finds when he enters the ninth gate. Who is The Ninth Gate for? What audience is this aimed at? Mystery/film noir fans will lose interest, because every character’s motivation is pretty straightforward without any interesting twists and turns. It’s not for horror fans, because there are only a few scenes that are supposed to be scary, and they’re incredibly silly. Fans of Johnny Depp’s more colorful Burton-esque films will hate how bored he is through the whole thing, and fans of his more serious dramas will hate that he doesn’t really have a chance to do much acting. Most of all, rare book enthusiasts will hate the complete carelessness this film shows towards literary artifacts. Characters are constantly smoking around rare books and handling them without gloves, and a bunch of the books end up burned.
Since apparently this is an acceptable way to end things now…
Story (7/20 Points)
The Ninth Gate takes what could be an interesting premise, and gives it a paint-by-numbers treatment with no investment in its own characters.
Faust (8/20 Points)
I’m usually a fan of Johnny Depp, but his character here has no life. His motivation goes from X to Y without any explanation of how he got there. It’s not a terrible performance or anything, just bland.
Devil (9/20 Points)
This is a bit tough to score, as the Devil is not explicitly a character, but he is definitely a presence throughout, and it’s at least a little intriguing and different that he wrote a book. It is also heavily implied that Emmanuelle Seigner’s nameless character is the Devil, but she exists solely to be a Deus ex Machina. Ok, so Deus ex Machina means “god in the machine,” but a Diablous ex Machina is an event that comes out of nowhere to hurt our hero, so it’s not that either.
Supporting Cast (6/20 Points)
When Frank Langella can’t make a villain compelling, something is wrong. He seems just as bored as Depp. Lena Olin manages to be over-the-top and boring as Liana. The actors who play the owners of the book’s other two copies (Jack Taylor and Barbara Jefford) are good enough though, and I at least cared a little about the former’s character.
Experience (5/20 Points)
The pacing is all over the place, with some scenes taking themselves incredibly seriously and others that are just downright goofy. It has something to do with the characters and writing too, but I just felt this big disconnect. I was never sucked into the film, but felt like I was watching from a distance, like it was a bad school play or something. The score is pretty forgettable too, but at least the castle at the end is a memorable set piece.
FINAL SCORE: 35%
I went back and double checked, so I can confirm this is the lowest score I have ever given a film on Movie Match-Up. Ironically this knocks Scrooge with Albert Finney out of the bottom spot, a film I criticized for showing Hell. Maybe I’m just never satisfied. I just cannot believe that the director of one of the greatest supernatural horror films of all time and perhaps the greatest detective film of all time cannot make a successful supernatural mystery. The Ninth Gate has its moments of intrigue, but they do not make up for the complete emptiness I felt after watching.
Next week, because I’m a glutton for punishment, we’ll be looking at the Bedazzled remake from 2000.
One year later, Collin took another look at this film and decided that maybe it wasn’t that bad. Read that here.