With the notable exception of Se7en, numerical horror-thrillers are utter rubbish. With their ridiculous twists, over-the-top acting and an overreliance on special effects, they epitomise all that is banal and disappointing about these two genres. You would think that Roman Polanski, the man who gave us Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, would be able to handle such well-worn material in at least a workable manner. But instead we end up with a ripe old stinker every bit as disappointing as Prince of Darkness.
Polanski has always been a fan of absurdist, quirky comedy, being greatly influenced by France's crown prince of absurdity, Eugene Ionesco. While absurdity in and of itself is no bad thing, Polanski has always been at his best when this aspect of his sensibility has been minimised, or at least properly accommodated. You have to admire him for being able to switch between bleak, serious works like Tess and The Pianist, and something more fun and frothy like Frantic. But his out-and-out exercises in comedy have dated very badly, with What? being the worst example.
Further doubts are raised by Polanski's attitude towards the source material. When interviewed in 1999 he said that he didn't believe in the supernatural - something you would never have guessed from Rosemary's Baby. He was drawn to the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte because it was an opportunity to play with the clichés of a genre that he enjoyed. The consequence is that we aren't sure how seriously Polanski is taking things, and therefore how seriously we should be taking him.
The Ninth Gate starts off quite atmospherically, with good pacing, dusty books and nice gothic colours. Film noir touches are evident throughout, from the archetype of the downbeat detective (or "book detective" in this case) to the enigmatic women in his life. Like so many noirs or Hitchcock films, the blond is enigmatic but for the most part on the hero's side, while the brunette is seductive and passionate to the point of being pure evil.
Having set things up quite nicely in the first ten minutes, The Ninth Gate starts to crumble as more and more ridiculous elements encroach. We might swallow the story about the three copies of The Nine Gates, if only because Frank Langella sounds authoritative as he wades through exposition. But subsequent developments are so clouded or convoluted that we quickly give up trying to figure it all out, insofar as there is anything to figure out. It feels like the sort of thing that Polanski could have done in his sleep - and for much of the film, he might as well have done.
All the big plot points in The Ninth Gate can be anticipated because they borrow all too heavily from better genre efforts. Having Dean Corso commissioned to search for The Nine Gates is exactly the same set-up as Angel Heart, but with a book instead of a jazz musician. His infiltration of a secret ceremony is lifted from The Wicker Man, and the mansion scenes strongly resemble Eyes Wide Shut, although this may be coincidental. There are also very standard references to The Omen in the use of 666, for instance, The NINE Gates being published in 1666. There is even a nod to An American Werewolf in London, as Corso arrives at the castle in a truck full of sheep.
Having given up on taking The Ninth Gate seriously, the next logical step is to try and enjoy it as a comedy, perhaps as an unintentional one. But the comedic elements are so completely at odds with Polanski's execution of the twists that they feel like they have escaped from a different film. The twin brothers, who are played by the same actor via split screen, bumble their way through their lines like a cross between Thomson and Thompson from Tintin and Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part.
The silliness of the supporting characters increases as the film moves on. Baroness Kessler, played by Barbara Jefford, is introduced as a formidable character of real threat to Dean Corso - who then slips almost immediately into pantomime villain mode when we discover that she only has one hand. Corso later finds her slumped in her motorised wheelchair having been strangled: he turns the wheelchair around, only for her to go careering through the double doors, like Mason Verger's death in Hannibal two years later.
Like many numerical thrillers, The Ninth Gate suffers from dodgy special effects. It's hardly a dull car crash like End of Days, in which Gabriel Byrne demonstrates his demonic power by blowing everything up, and Arnold Schwarzenegger try to stop him with a grenade launcher. But alongside bad continuity and an unconvincingly burnt book, there are at least two examples of dodgy wire work, in which Emmanuelle Seigner floats down into a scene, without any prior clue that she could fly.
The Ninth Gate is littered with irritating plot holes which leaving us scratching our heads even in the moments when generic convention could fill in the gaps. There is no explanation of the serpent tattoo on the brunette's back, nor of Boris Balkan's ability to know exactly where Corso is at any one time - which is, conveniently, always within reach of a phone. But more annoying than either of these is Polanski's contempt for the subject matter. It's hard to believe that either Corso or Balkan know or care so much about rare tomes when they treat them so carelessly. They don't bother to handle them with gloves, flip through ancient pages like they were airport paperbacks and carry them around in scruffy bags which get flung everywhere.
This care-free attitude spills over into the performances. Johnny Depp had wanted to work with Polanski for some time, but Polanski didn't tell him that he wasn't giving the performance that he wanted - in other words, he was almost completely undirected in the role. To be fair to Depp, he gets the physical stuff right, modelling himself on Raymond Chandler and being more convincing than he is in Secret Window. But otherwise it's pretty phoned-in, with Polanski being unable or unwilling to tease out the greatness that Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam had managed.
Frank Langella is no stranger to trashy villains, having played Skeletor in the awful He-Man movie, Masters of the Universe. He does the best with a surprisingly underwritten role, looking a little bit like Michael Redgrave in The Dambusters. Lena Orin has far too little to do beyond flashing her stocking tops in the first half-hour and then dressing up like the actress from Scottish Widows for the satanic ceremony. As for Seigner, she does a good demon stare, but otherwise she's too airy-fairy, wafting through the scenery as if she doesn't really care who she's playing or what she's doing. In any case, it's essentially the same character she plays in Frantic - the quirky outsider who helps the male protagonist, only this time she's the devil as well.
The final nail in The Ninth Gate's coffin comes with its ending, which is hopelessly dragged out and completely incoherent. We get to see Langella self-immolate and fail to pass through the Ninth Gate - but that's not the end. Seigner makes love to Depp against the flames with her demon eyes, the camera zooms in on Depp as if he realises who she is all along, and he seems about to scream - but that's not the end. After the two drive back, and Seigner remarks "is that it?" (to which the answer is "no"), Depp goes back to the bookshop and finds the missing page - but that's not the end. Depp then goes back to the castle and the screen fades to white, in one of the most shambolic and unsatisfying endings in 1990s cinema.
The Ninth Gate is an example of what happens when a great director indulges themself to the extent that they no longer feel the need to try. As an exercise in supernatural horror it is every bit as rubbish as Prince of Darkness: Polanski's film looks better, but Carpenter's was shorter. In attempting to put his stamp on overly familiar elements, Polanski fails to deliver chills, thrills or knowing laughs. Thank God that he redeemed himself beyond all recognition just three short years later.