Looking Back at Polanski’s The Ninth Gate

There aren't too many movies in the Satanic Detective Genre, but The Ninth Gate is an underrated nightmare!

Roman Polanski will always be associated with the devil. He made the influential horror masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby and was falsely rumored to have recruited Anton Lavey, the head of the Church of Satan, to advise on it and possibly portray the uncredited Lucifer. It was shot in The Dakota, the exclusive Manhattan apartment building where John Lennon was shot. John Lennon’s Revolution and its audio landscape Revolution 9 unhinged Charles Manson, who shattered Polanski’s life in a too-real bloodbath at a house where Lennon stayed while The Beatles were in California.

Sometimes the universe comes together in a bad way.  Polanski exiled himself from America after committing a sinister act, probably as a result of the trauma he endured after the slaughter of his wife and unborn child. He has never shied away from horror in his films. That doesn’t necessarily mean his films, even his horror films, are always scary.

Thirty years after Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski conjured the devil again and mixed it with his noir classic Chinatown for the 1999 French-Spanish-American thriller The Ninth Gate. Johnny Depp stars as a man descending into evil as easily as he would slip into a hot bath. It is part of a very exclusive subgenre in film, the Satanic Detective Movie, of which there is only one other, Angel Heart. Fallen, starring Denzel Washington is a satanic cop movie, although it shares some noir trademarks.  

The Ninth Gate is an adaptation of The Dumas Club, a book written by Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte. The story of a book detective who is hired to authenticate, among other things, De Umbrarum Regis Novum Portis (The Nine Doors To the Kingdom of Shadows). The fictional Nine Gates was written by the equally fictional Aristide Torchia when he was in Venice in 1666, while in possession of the Delomelanicon, another fictional book allegedly written by the devil himself. Lucifer gets partial credit for woodcut engravings, but no residuals because all but three of the books were burned at the stake along with the author. A cult formed around the book that believes it contains instructions on how to raise Satan. Aristide Torchia is probably based on the life of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for his belief in pantheism.

Ad – content continues below

Reluctant movie heartthrob Johnny Depp plays the book mercenary Dean Corso with a cruel, aloof undertone and a devil-may-care charm. Frank Langella, who starred as Dracula on stage and screen when he was still a heart-throb, plays the bad bibliophile, Boris Balkan, with a Mephistophelian glee. Lena Olin plays Liana Telfer, a member of the cult of the book of the Ninth Gate and the seductive widow of the book’s previous owner Andrew Telfer, who committed suicide. Polanski’s wife, Catholic convent student turned model and Ultra Orange singer Emmanuelle Seigner, plays the Girl, a kickboxing imp in mismatched socks.

Polanski borrowed Barbara Jefford from the Royal Shakespeare Company to play the wheelchair bound, stump-armed Baroness Frida Kessler. Jack Taylor, who made a nude appearance in Jesus Franco’s 1974 pornographic horror film, Female Vampire, plays Victor Fargas. Production manager Jose Lopez Rodero plays both Pablo and Pedro Ceniza, the identical-twin, chain-smoking book dealers with a gift for artistic forgery.

The screenplay was written by Enrique Urbiz, Roman Polanski and John Brownjohn. Darius Khondji is the cinematographer and Wojciech Kilar composed the orchestral strains of dread. The Ninth Gate was filmed at the Parisian Hotel Cayre and the Château de Ferrieres near Paris. Balkan raises the devil in the Château de Puivert, the castle where the Catholic Church began the crusades against the Cathars, the heretics of the South of France.

The film begins with Andrew Telfer hanging himself from the chandelier in his library. It is not an easy death. He doesn’t break his neck. He chokes to death. Maybe he killed himself because of the missing book the camera is so interested in. We meet Dean Corso as he is gutting a couple out of a rare copy of Don Quixote while the owner,  a stroke victim, silently digs holes in his knees with this fingers at his agitation over being ripped off. While he is leaving, Corso is confronted by another book dealer for being an unscrupulous vulture. After snoozing through a lecture where he notices a woman who notices him, Corso is summoned to see Boris Balkan’s esteemed book collection, all with one protagonist, the devil.  Balkan acquired one of only three surviving copies of the ancient book Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Shadows by Aristide Torchia, from the late Andrew Telfer.

The author was burned at the stake in the 1600s for writing it in collaboration with Lucifer.  The “Nine Gates” reputedly contains a puzzle that forms a ritual that will allow the reader to summon the devil. Balkan believes that something is not right about his copy.  Corso asks “What’s wrong, the Devil won’t show up?” Balkan pays Corso to inspect the book against the other two existing copies and to obtain an original, non-forgery by any means possible. Corso meets with Telfer’s widow who is upset that this book, which was very special to her husband, had been sold. Corso stashes his copy at Bernie’s Rare Books.

Mrs. Telfer shows up at Corso’s apartment revealing a snake tattoo but concealing no weapon and tries to screw him out of the book. When he goes to retrieve the book he finds Bernie hanging by one foot, like one of the engravings. Barely fazed, Corso moves past his hanging friend to retrieve the book.

Ad – content continues below

Corso flies to Spain to talk with its original owners, book dealers Pablo and Pedro Ceniza who tell him that “All books have a destiny of their own.” Each book contains nine wood-cut engravings that accompany the text, six engravings are signed AT, referring to the author Aristide Torchia; but three are signed LCF, for the other artist who signed the illustrations, Lucifer. The dealers point out one of the engravings which warn about venturing too far down a path where danger will come from above.

As he leaves the bookstore, Corso is terrorized from above by the collapse of some scaffolding. Corso examines the copy owned by Victor Fargas and discovers that there are subtle discrepancies in the supposedly-identical engravings that are signed “LCF.” The enigmatic Girl wakes Corso, tells him to change out of his bed sheets and takes him back to the Fargas estate where he sees that Fargas has drowned. Corso finds Fargas’ Nine Gates burning on a fireplace, all of the pages with the engravings have been torn out.

Liana Telfer, who belongs to the Order of the Silver Serpent, a cult of bored millionaires devoted to the book they quote from as part of a Satanic ritual, wants her book back. She sets a Black gentleman with peroxide blonde hair after Corso to run him over and retrieve it, but he is run off by a menacing scooter.

Corso meets with the owner of the third copy, Baroness Frida Kessler, who says she saw the devil when she was a child, and it was “love at first sight.” She has dedicated her life to writing about the devil and is currently working on his biography. Corso explains the discrepancies and gets permission to compare the two books. While comparing her copy against his own, Corso is knocked unconscious (it ain’t a noir film if the detective doesn’t get knocked unconscious a few times) and wakes to find that Kessler has been strangled and that her apartment is on fire.

Corso tries unsuccessfully to pull Kessler’s copy of the book from the flames. Corso returns to his hotel room to find that his copy of The Nine Gates has been stolen by Telfer. Corso and the Girl crash a satanic ritual to see Balkan disrupt the proceedings, kill Telfer and reclaim his book, scaring the gathered supplicants with a comic “boo.” Corso tracks Balkan to a castle where Balkan is using the book in a personal ritual to attempt to conjure the devil. Thinking he has rendered himself indestructible, Balkan sets himself on fire and is surprised to find that he burns. Corso shoots him after letting him burn a little while, grabs the engravings and makes love to the Girl with the flames in the background. The Girl tells him that one of the engravings was a forgery.

Corso goes back to Spain to the book dealer’s place and the real engraving falls from above. The last engraving reveals the location of the Ninth Gate. Corso walks through the illuminated Ninth Gate, achieving dark enlightenment.

Ad – content continues below

The Ninth Gate doesn’t provide shrieks of terror; it tightens the suspense like a noose. Polanski subtly creates an uneasy atmosphere using minimal effects. The director knows where evil lives and lets the settings and sound make the invitations with subliminal references to recognizable horror and cinematic danger.

There are similarities to the artistic geomancy of Stanley Kubrick in this movie’s combination of framing and music. The street sequence where the scaffolding collapses always reminded me of another devil movie, The Omen. When Corso flees the burning apartment, he knocks a grocery bag from the arms of Kessler’s formidable secretary, spilling oranges down the stairs in a sly wink to The Godfather. The Ninth Gate packages its scares with classy style that the characters deliver with sexily provocative intelligence. Dean Corso may be Johnny Depp’s greatest spiritual transformation, from odious to ultimate evil and the audience cheers on his descent, happy to ride with him straight to hell.

The book, The Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Shadows, was always destined for Corso, his lust and greed have prepared him for it, and his evil inches up as the movie progresses. He is named Lucas Corso in The Dumas Club, which might also have the initials LCR. A dog and a little girl both notice that there is something different about Corso. As does the Girl. She doesn’t align herself with the evil wannabe, Balkan. She fixes on Corso for the first time at Balkan’s lecture, but Balkan, the satanic scholar, doesn’t recognize her as the devil herself. The Girl is named Irene Adler in The Dumas Club.

At one point she gives Corso a copy of a book called The Devil in Love. When Corso beats Telfer’s henchman to death, after he’s already unconscious, she watches with glee and maybe even a little arousal, breathing “I didn’t know you had it in you.” Who knew satanic enlightenment could be so sexy? Hollywood, of course.

Motion pictures recognized the dark appeal of the unholy since they cast Satan in the 1899 silent film Chorus Girls and the Devil. Polanski presents The Ninth Gate as a seduction. Solving the riddle of the book doesn’t raise Beelzebub. Corso learns that if you want to be down with the devil, you got to get down with the devil.