The Ninth Gate

ninthgateBooks are mental landscapes. They may contain direct representations of external realities (maps, charts, words that describe worlds) but they are, in and of themselves, complete things. The idea that a book takes you someplace else is, to me, a misnomer. Books are their own “other places.” They may be puerile, stupid places or the greatest countries imaginable, but they are. In making a horror movie about the power of a book, Roman Polanski fills his frames with the architecture of literature, but he does not replicate the universalities of the books themselves. The Ninth Gate is too limited by its medium to really convey the terror of potential found in a book.

In a way, this is a reflection of Johnny Depp’s protagonist. He is a book dealer, with an apparent encyclopedic knowledge of rare and valuable books (enough to lie convincingly to men in estate sales) but with no real love or interest in their contents. He’s a mercenary who has found himself a particular niche. This is grown-up Johnny Depp, (you can tell by the facial hair and the bits of gray), inhabiting a disinterested weariness, hiding behind wire-frame glasses and a pointed lack of expression.

Frank Langella hires Depp to find a particular book of demonology, The Nine Gates To The Kingdom Of Shadows. There are three extant copies of the book, and Langella already has one. But he wants it compared against the other two, to see if his is authentic, or a fake. The Nine Gates has a literally hellish reputation: it is said to contain the keys to contacting the devil himself. The Ninth Gate is a horror thriller, so guess what: it does. Almost. Depp soon finds he’s not the only one seeking the books, and is quickly embroiled in a conspiracy of murder, devil worship, sexy brunettes, and a mysterious girl who may not be an angel, or a devil.

The Ninth Gate has danger, and intrigue, but its languid pace doesn’t create much suspense. Depp is threatened, and everybody he talks to that has any connection to the books ends up dead. The film has some elements in common with the much superior Angel Heart, but while that film knew it was a nightmare and became more hellish with each scene, The Ninth Gate knows it’s an absurdity and so plays up its “amusing” elements. There’s a cavalcade of secondary characters that are quirky, and always interesting, but they make the cross-section of antiquarians and satanists blackly humorous, and never really threatening or frightening.

In considering what The Ninth Gate could have been, I would look at another occult film of the 90s, Lord Of Illusions. Being a Clive Barker film, Lord has a much more direct link to the violence and goriness that one expects from an overtly horrific film. But, despite being a lower level of class than The Ninth Gate, Lord Of Illusions takes its horror story very seriously – and when its villain is resurrected, it’s very much like a visitation from the devil. Lord Of Illusions takes the idea of physical, active evil very seriously. It works.

The Ninth Gate is above its own story. It won’t let it work, because it doesn’t believe it can.

About Kent Conrad

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