Roman Polanski’s diabolical little thriller may not rise to the level of his acknowledged classics in the horror genre; nevertheless, it represents a return to form for the director of such memorable films as Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Decades later, THE NINTH GATE may not be groundbreaking in the way those films were back in the 1960s, but it features the same sure-handed control of cinematic elements.
Unlike modern horror films, THE NINTH GATE takes a more classic approach to its subject matter, slowly and carefully building up and sustaining suspense, with an undercurrent of supernatural dread, while seldom offering overt shocks. The storyline is basically a Satanic variation on Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, with Johnny Depp as Corso, an ethically unscrupulous procurer of rare books. A rich collector named Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) hires Corso to authenticate a Satanic volume in his collection. Once he takes the job, Corso encounters a Satan-worshipping widow (Lena Olin) and an enigmatic motorcycle-riding woman (Emmanuelle Seigner), who turns out to be his guardian angel of sorts — although demon may be the more appropriate designation.
The audience is supposed to respect Corso because because he is a talented professional, good at what he does, regardless of the fact that he behaves without ethics. Yet by the end of THE NINTH GATE, Corso has, like Sam Spade before him, given up on just completing the job and collecting his paycheck; he has become consumed by the mystery, which he wishes to solve for its own sake. The film’s wicked joke is that the character’s spiritual awakening dives in the opposite direction of salvation. Apparently Lucifer’s chosen one (for no apparent reason, except perhaps that the Devil likes his style), Corso puts the pieces together and unravels Lucifer’s mysterious puzzle. When last seen, approaching a castle gate (presumably the ninth gate of the title) from which emanates a blazing, glorious light (recall that “Lucifer” originally meant “bringer of light”), Corso is presumably heading toward—what?
Damnation? If so, THE NINTH GATE’s vision of damnation is a strange one. The Devil-worshippers we see preparing for a black mass are derided mercilessly by Balkan, who interrupts and chastises them for chanting “mumbo-jumbo.” His sentiments echoes those expressed earlier in the film by the owner of another copy of the rare Satanic volume. The film seems to tell us that these Satanists are just in it for the orgies and the kicks; they are not carrying on the true faith. Yet somehow Corso, the non-believer, winds up receiving the Devil’s blessing, and in some way, apparently, we are meant to see this as an achievement. Needless to say, this ending (which lacks the visual and/or dramatic punch it really needs in order to cap the film satisfactorily) did not go down well with audiences in theatres, but it does make a kind of sense in the context of the film.
THE NINTH GATE’s was original released on DVD by Artisan Entertainment on July 18, 2000. That now out-of-print DVD has sinsce been replaced by Lionsgate’s May 22, 2007 DVD, which was followed by Lionsgate’s subsequent Blu-ray disc on August 11, 2009. These later releases essentially recreate the bonus features from the Artisan DVD, while improving upon the Artisan disc’s interminably slow opening menus; the Blu-ray disc also offers a new 1080p high-defintion transfer. The special features include an isolated music score, a featurette, a gallery of satanic drawings, storyboard selections, theatrical trailers and TV spots, cast and crew info, production notes, scene access, and an interactive menu.
The featurette truly puts emphasis on the suffix “ette”—it flashes by in about the length of time one would expect for a commercial, but it does include a nice moment or two (such as Depp’s observation that you begin the film by hating Corso because he’s a bad guy, but by the time you’ve grown to like him near the end, he has in fact grown even worse).
Fortuantely, Roman Polanski’s audio commentary makes up for the disappointing behind-the-scenes featurette. The director is clearly uncomfortable sitting through THE NINTH GATE again; right off the bat he calls the experience “unusual” and emphasizes that he doesn’t go back to his films “unless compelled to.” Later, he explains, “I avoid watching my films because most of the time I feel like I would like to improve certain things. In other moments, I’m straight ashamed of certain things I did, and it just doesn’t do me any good to revisit this.” This discomfort is apparent also in the way that the commentary drops out and returns periodically throughout the film, no doubt indicating various stops-and-starts during the recording process.
Despite this, Polanski turns out to be a thoughtful and amusing commentator on his own work. His voice is slow, and occasionally he apologizes for his pronunciation, but overall his English is good, and he delivers numerous behind-the-scenes details and philosophical tidbits that make the experience amusing and informative. During one of his many explanations for not wanting to re-view his films and ponder the way he might have improved them, he states that after a certain point, one is no longer improving a film; one has only the illusion of making it better and “better is often the enemy of good.”
Most interesting from a technical point of view is that this deceptively simple film is loaded with hundreds of special effects of the most invisible kind (often to establish settings or enhance live-action effects, sometimes to film tricky bits of action without putting the actors in danger). In an amusing early note, Polanski points out that the opening skyline shot of Manhattan was filmed by a second-unit; he discretely neglects to mention that this had to be the case—not because it’s a shot not involving principal actors, but because the director is a fugitive from justice in this country (since pleading guilty to a rape charge in the 1970s) and cannot legally return to the location. There are other amusing omissions. At one point, the director explains his reasons for casting Emmanuelle Seigner (“I thought Emmanuel had the right looks for the role, and she can be enigmatic”), but he neglects to mention that he’s married to her.
In other interesting asides, Polanski also confirms the film’s debt to the writings of Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler, admitting that the proceedings are almost a parody of the private detective genre. He mentions, “It’s a good thing to make a movie about a book…now that it has competition from the computer.” On the subject of his Satanic subject matter (which he handled before in Rosemary’s Baby), he claims, “I’m not a believer, but the Devil is a good guy to make a film about—even if you don’t see him” (as indeed you don’t, in either film). He adds that Rosemary’s Baby was a more serious take on the subject matter, so he felt compelled to set that film up so that everything could be interpreted without recourse to the supernatural—as a paranoid delusion by Rosemary, brought on by the strain and stress of her pregnancy. THE NINTH GATE, on the other hand, is a “fairy tale for adults,” so he felt no concern about downplaying the supernatural element.
Polanski briefly addresses this element during the film’s closing scenes. After describing Johnny Depps’s character as a “mercenary” who later comes to want “access to the mystery,” he adds a few words about Seigner’s unnamed character “who clearly represents the Devil.” Still, Polanski stops short of clearing up the details: he leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether the character is merely servant of the Devil or the Devil disguised in a form that would appeal to Corso, and he states clearly, “I’m not going to explain the film.”
Commenting on THE NINTH GATE’s existence on DVD, Polanski says he was thinking of adding missing scenes for the disc, but there were none to be had; although some scenes were trimmed or shortened, none were entirely cut out. Later, he mentions that all the insert shots of books (which revel important clues to the mystery) were very carefully planned for the benefit of nitpickers who like to rewind and check details over and over again, looking for cheats and/or continuity errors.
“I challenge anyone to find any lack of logic in this!” the director proudly states.
Near the end, he states that there is no better way of seeing a movie than in a theatre, but viewing one at home is the next best thing, so he is grateful for the invention of DVDs, because the image quality of VHS is poor and Laserdiscs were too heavy and clunky.
Finally, after a cigar and some chocolate to help him through the film, Polanski signs off by sighing, “Well, this was an experience!”
Perhaps a trying experience for him, as a director forced to sit through one of his finished films when he would much prefer to be looking forward t his next work, but for us in the audience, the experience is perfectly enjoyable. THE NINTH GATE may not be a perfect movie (typical of Polanski, the deliberate pace is a bit too deliberate, and the climax could have used something more…climactic maybe?); nevertheless, this is a worthwhile film, and Polanski’s commentary provides a glimpse of a talented mind still capable of applying the craftsmanship necessary to fashion an effective, suggestive horror film without relying on shock effects.
THE NINTH GATE may not appeal to the MTV audience (Polanski himself states that the film’s style is a reaction against flashy contemporary fashions in cinema), but fans of thoughtful, intelligent horror movie-making, with carefully modulated scenes and performances that lull you into accepting the incredible story,will find the subject matter intriguing enough to be worth investigating. Just don’t lose yourself in the mystery as Corso does.
THE NINTH GATE (2000). Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by John Brownjohn & Enrique Urbizu and Roman Polanski. Cast: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, Barbara Jefford, Jack Taylor, Jos Lopez Rodero, James Russo.