When filmmakers reach a certain level of popularity and critical esteem, it becomes distressingly commonplace that their newer works will be found to be not as good as their earlier ones. How much this has to do with critics wanting to put these boys in their places is open to question, though I think it mostly has to do with a shortsightedness that demands the filmmaker should just stop growing. It is, after all, easier to condemn the artist (in any art) for not providing what you expect than it is to come to terms with a departure. Such was the fate of Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate when it appeared in 1999. And yet the truth is that the film really wasn’t out of keeping with the director’s body of work if you bothered to really look.
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. (You’ll know it when you see it. It happens at the 72 minute mark.) 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.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Ninth Gate Thursday, Aug. 20 at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.