The Ninth Gate

Movie Information

The Ninth Gate, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.
Score:

Genre: Horror/Mystery
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, Barbara Jefford
Rated: R

High on the list of underrated—perhaps even misunderstood—Roman Polanski films is his 1999 diabolical thriller The Ninth Gate. Ten years ago, most critics seemed to want to dismiss the film out of hand with the typical (and wrongheaded) outcry of it being inferior to his Rosemary’s Baby (1968). In other cases, it was decried as being less successful than its source novel. Note, if you will, that neither assessment actually addresses the film on its own merits, which are considerable—even remarkable.

The Ninth Gate is the story of a not wholly scrupulous dealer in rare books, Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), who is hired by the enigmatic, sinister and filthy rich Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to discover which of three copies of a book from 1666 (of course) is real. The book was supposedly virtually co-authored by Satan himself—and, it’s said, can be used to summon the old boy. Balkan has just acquired one of the copies; the other two are in Europe. It is there that he sends Corso, but not before strange things start happening in the States.

In some ways, the film—although unusually heavily literary—is a reasonably straightforward Satanism yarn, but Polanski’s approach to the material makes it different. The film proceeds in much the manner of a regular—almost noir-ish—mystery for a good length, only to suddenly and casually introduce a supernatural element, which I suspect threw people. It drew a laugh from the audience I saw it with in 1999—and I’m not sure that it wasn’t meant to. Polanski has crafted a film that in part pokes fun at its horror-story basis, but he does so only to turn around and play the later scenes for real horror, before moving into the realm of the truly mystical at the end. This last troubled a great many critics in 1999, but if you’ll look at the film carefully, you can see that it was set up—pre-ordained—during the opening credits sequence. It’s actually a much better work than a number of Polanski’s more acclaimed films—and time has been kind to it.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

14 thoughts on “The Ninth Gate

  1. Jim Donato

    Maybe I should revisit this film. I remember being in Spain in Aug. 1999 and seeing billboards and posters for this all over Madrid. I was interested that Europe was getting a new Depp film first. My wife and I were waiting quite a few months for it to open in the States. I can’t say we were bowled over by it once it premiered. I’ve certainly become a Frank Langella fan in the intervening decade due to his subsequent films. Back then to me he was the still guy who played Dracula in John Badham’s version (which I didn’t bother with). The only Polanski films that seemed interesting to me were Fearless Vampire Killers and The Tenant.

  2. Ken Hanke

    The only Polanski films that seemed interesting to me were Fearless Vampire Killers and The Tenant

    If those are high on your list, then maybe this would be worth another look, since those are probably my top two Polanskis and I quite like this one. (Confession: I am bored out of my mind by Rosemary’s Baby.)

  3. Ken Hanke

    Still gets my vote for one of the silliest sex scenes ever.

    A major perceptional difference there! I was surprised by it, but I didn’t find it silly.

  4. Dread P. Roberts

    Still gets my vote for one of the silliest sex scenes ever.

    Hahaha…I had completely forgotten about that. It was kinda funny.

    I mostly just remember thinking W.T.F. when the credits rolled.

    If those are high on your list, then maybe this would be worth another look, since those are probably my top two Polanskis and I quite like this one.

    I’m very glad to see people giving so much praise to Fearless Vampire Killers. I think that this movie is very underrated. My theory is that people were expecting (or wanting) more of a dark thriller, and less of a monty python-esque comedy. Probably one of my favorite Polanski movies as well.

    I really do need to re-watch The Ninth Gate, considering it’s now been a decade (holy crap) since I last saw this, and I just really didn’t enjoy it the first time. Of course, I was far less familiar with Polanski at the time – I’m not even sure that I initially knew he had made the thing. My tastes might have changed since then, we’ll see.

    (Confession: I am bored out of my mind by Rosemary’s Baby.)

    You’re not alone. This is my least favorite Polanski movie.

  5. Jim Donato

    There was a sex scene in The Ninth Gate??!! It must not have made any impression on me because I have NO memory of it whatsoever. Actually, the film barely lingers in my mind at all. The only thing I can remember about it was the interminable computer graphic opening credits and what seemed like a really goofy ending. I just looked it up on IMDB. I didn’t remember Lena Olin in it either and this was the woman who made a lasting impression in “Romeo Is Bleeding.” Now that was a sex scene that’ll stick in your mind.

  6. A major perceptional difference there! I was surprised by it, but I didn’t find it silly.

    With 10 years gone, I’ve been meaning to revisit this film, sex scene or no. I’ve also wanted to read the book as well. The book has Corso looking for another rare book as well, a plot that dropped from the film.

  7. Dread P. Roberts

    Now that I stop to ponder The Ninth Gate, I can vaguely recall initially telling people that it had one of the worst, most anti-climatic endings that I’ve ever seen in a movie. I recall feeling like I had just been teased, by really getting into the mysterious proceedings, only to be letdown. But it’s rather interesting that I still have a clear memory of the ending, more-so than anything else (that I supposedly enjoyed far more) in the movie.

    Ken, it would be great if you could touch on the significance of the ending a little more. Perhaps I’ll “get it” a little better the second time around. Hell, if nothing else, it might be amusing to see the look on my wife’s face at the end, considering she’s never seen it.

  8. thedj

    Halariously bad. I remember a terrible CGI moment when Emmanuelle Seigner floats menacingly down a stairway on the Seine.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Ken, it would be great if you could touch on the significance of the ending a little more.

    I’m not sure that’s possible without describing the ending of the movie, which I’d rather not do. But it’s not really a matter of getting it or not getting it. I don’t think there’s anything significant to get. It’s simply a question of whether or not this kind of inconclusive ending is going to bother you. For that matter, it’s not really inconclusive, it’s just a matter of only taking the viewer so far and leaving him or her to wonder what happens next.

  10. Patsy

    Hey Ken,
    Thanks for reviewing the Courtyard Gallery movie this week. I really like the venue and find your critiques to be my guide.

    Patsy

  11. Ken Hanke

    Thanks for reviewing the Courtyard Gallery movie this week. I really like the venue and find your critiques to be my guide

    Well, you’re certainly welcome, though I think I’ve reviewed just about everything that’s been shown there. I think they are a very valuable component of our film community.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Ken I think you have reviewed about 300 of our film showings over the years. Thank you! You are a great community resource

    Thank you. Now, let’s try for another 300.

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