The horror of Roman Polanski is not about spectacle and shock, but a goose-pimply sense of something evil lurking just outside the frame and hidden behind the faces of its slightly unsettling characters. At times The Ninth Gate (1999), adapted from the novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, recaptures the beautiful uneasiness of such masterpieces as Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.
A calm, almost sleepy Johnny Depp plays cynical, unscrupulous rare book hunter Dean Corso, whose reputation precedes him wherever he goes. He’ll find almost anything—for a price—and there’s none better. Demonologist Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a millionaire with a library dedicated to Satan, hires Corso to authenticate a rare volume that, legend has it, was co-written by Lucifer himself.
He leaves a Gothic looking New York (recreated in Europe by Polanski as a sinister city of shadows) for Portugal and Paris to compare Balkan’s volume with the only other two known copies in existence and uncovers a mystery with unholy ramifications. He’s shadowed, beaten, attacked, robbed, and generally made to feel like a target as he finds himself at the center of a conspiracy that involves Balkan (who keeps adding zeroes to his fee), a widow who will stop at nothing to retrieve Balkan’s book (Lena Olin, who gleefully bites and claws her way through the part), and a mysterious guardian “angel” who shadows his every step. Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner is the mysterious motorbike riding, butt kicking, boho dressing green eyed beauty who looks and floats like an angel but has a secret that could be downright devilish.
The Ninth Gate is full of rumbling menace and deliciously unsettling imagery, but Polanski’s languorous direction and purposefully vague story leaves a film that’s eerie without every becoming thrilling. It’s perpetually on the verge of becoming interesting—right up to its obscure final image.