Reviews by Alan Jones
From Starburst's monthly Reviews section
selected from Starburst #259

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Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate
The Ninth Gate

After years of skirting around the genre in which he scored with such classics as Repulsion, Dance of the Vampires and Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski makes a triumphant return to Horror with a marvellously rich and satisfying Gothic chiller based on the all-time Continental best-seller El Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte.

An enormous hit in Europe, and crammed with the director’s trademark sardonic wit, subtle suspense tricks and razor-sharp irony, The Ninth Gate is easily Polanski’s finest movie since The Tenant. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it’s also one of the best Satanic spectaculars since The Devil Rides Out, the Hammer hit it vaguely resembles.

Intensely gripping from the moment the dreamy gate credits open, Polanski’s disturbing demonic thriller satisfies the intellect and haunts the memory with one gorgeously composed wide screen shot (by Darius Khondji) after another. The premise is both intriguing and menacing; Manhattan rare books collector Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) hires loner expert Dean Corso (Johnny Depp, with greying temples) to authenticate his priceless copy of ‘The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows’, an ancient tome supposedly written in conjunction with Lucifer himself.

Two other copies of the same work are held by Victor Fargas (Jack Taylor) in Portugal and by Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford) in Paris so Corso heads to Europe and inveigles his way into both owner’s confidences to compare the nine illustrations within the text. Immediately Corso notices various discrepancies in their artistry and reports back to Balkan who gives him the authority to buy the books at whatever cost. That’s something neither owner will agree to and both end up mysteriously murdered.

Meanwhile, high society hostess Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), the original owner of Balkan’s copy, is also tracking down the books for ritual use in the Black Magic orgies she holds at her remote French chateau. (The similarities between The Ninth Gate and Eyes Wide Shut at this juncture are astounding).

Why everyone is after the three books soon becomes clear. When the three engravings drawn by Satan from each of the three books are put together at a pre-designated location, they have the power to open the Ninth Gate and conjure up the Prince of Darkness in all his omnipotent glory. There are no prizes for guessing exactly who the power-crazed villain is as Polanski is more interested in the psychologically demented underpinnings of his involving story and, more to the point, Corso’s eventual corruption by them, than the whodunnit mystery itself.

The carefully crafted pleasures are too numerous to mention in The Ninth Gate as one knock-out set piece follows another giving full range to Polanski’s artistry and talent to create a palpably moody atmosphere of sinister unease with barely hidden passions boiling beneath their surface. Depp is perfectly cast, Jefford steals the acting honours and Langella goes on impressive manic overdrive once again as he did in Lolita. Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski’s wife) gives her usual stilted performance, but here it doesn’t matter as her blankness works well in the context of keeping the audience guessing over which side her guardian angel is actually on.

Neat visual touches (a collapsing camera signifying unconsciousness) pepper the shaggy devil scenario laden with invisible special effects work and Wojciech Kilar’s stunning score compliments every creepy moment with insouciant élan. The Ninth Gate doesn’t follow Hollywood blockbuster rules or any recent trend and the only graphic moment comes when a pentagram medallion is buried in a victim’s neck. Perhaps that non-conformism is precisely why it feels so fresh and scintillating.

Polanski finishes off his playfully ominous return to form with an absolutely brilliant, burnished and hallucinatory climax on a spine-tingling par with Mia Farrow gazing into her off-spring’s cradle at the end of Rosemary’s Baby. If the Devil does indeed have the best tricks, The Ninth Gate is one of his more potent examples. I adored it.

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France – August 1999
USA – March 31st
UK – Spring 2000
Starburst Rating 10 out of 10

Ninth Gate picture
copyright Artisan
Feature © Visual Imagination 2000. Not for reproduction

127 mins • Cert R / 18

Johnny Depp
Frank Langella
Lena Olin
Emmanuelle Seigner
Barbara Jefford
Jack Taylor
Jose Lopez Rodero
James Russo

Producer •
Roman Polanski
Executive Producer •
Wolfgang Glattes
Michael Cheyko
Co-producers •
Inaki Nunez
Antonio Cardenal
Alain Vannier
Mark Allan
Director •
Roman Polanski
Screenplay •
Enrique Urbizu
John Brownjohn
Roman Polanski
Screenplay based on the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Music •
Wojciech Kilar
Special visual effects •
Duboi Sony Pictures
Imageworks Eclair
Numerique Mikros
Images Effets Films
Feature © Visual Imagination 2000. Not for reproduction