Okay, time to wrap it up. For this next and last installment of “Josh Geeks Out Over Horror Films Just Because It’s Halloween,” I’m tackling the awkward, gothic, endearingly kitschy “The Ninth Gate,” a film that answers the question: What happens when a temperamental man-child actor has an off-screen tiff with a pedophilic genius?
Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso, a collector, dealer and quasi-detective of rare, antiquated books. Corso is tasked by megalomaniacal collector and occult expert Boris Balkan — played, admittedly, quite menacingly by Frank Langella — to track down the two other extant copies of “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows,” a work reputedly co-written by the Devil himself; Balkan owns one of only three copies. What follows is a gruesome, deliciously macabre descent into conspiracy, Satanism, obsession and pure and outright madness.
In many ways, it’s a typical Roman Polanski film, and I mean that in a good way. Say what you will about the man and the predilections of his penis, but if the goal is to create a singular, seriocomic sense of perpetual dread, there are not many directors I’d sooner want behind the camera. His visual style, his pacing, his sense of color and atmosphere, and how all of those elements conspire to influence and manipulate the viewer, is unparalleled. If you’ve never seen a Polanski flick, then do two things immediately: go see all of them, then imagine Francis Ford Coppola shoving an Agatha Christie story through a dime-novel lens, and you might approximate the effect.
Depp himself is fairly unremarkable. He plays Corso rather flat, a choice that was at odds with what Polanski had envisioned: reportedly more of a roughneck, Philip Marlowe type. And indeed, Corso’s habits would seem to back up such an origin, as he spends most of his time drinking whisky, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and eating crappy food while poring over ancient tomes. But he reacts so innocuously to murder, Satanic worship and his own life being threatened that Depp must have decided early on to portray Corso as having Asperger’s, or at least someone who took a lot of Valium.
Langella, on the other hand, is fantastic in his limited screen time. His Boris Balkan is quiet and prim, though positively reeking of Bond villains. His considerable frame is put to good use, as he towers over everyone with whom he shares the scene, and is equally as believable cutting Corso a check for a six-figure fee as he is brutally choking a woman to death.
The film is fun, if a little by-the-book in its proceedings and, frankly, downright lazy in its “Gotcha!” conclusion. What “The Ninth Gate” turns out to address, then, is obsession. In this case, it’s an obsession with certain Satanic rites that seems to take center stage, but I think it’s about something a little more left-of-center: namely, how easy it is to get swept along in someone else’s plans, to such an extent that you may even find yourself transposed into their role, a role you hadn’t planned, a role you didn’t see yourself fulfilling until the very moment.
This is about the merging of obsessions, the rendering of each one indistinct from the other. Corso was obsessed, it is hinted, early on in his career with the actual work, the minutiae of hunting down books, the unearthing of history; gradually, and by the time the film opens, he is obsessed only with his fee. When asked by Balkan during their initial meeting, “Do you believe in the Devil, Mr. Corso?” Corso responds “I believe in my percentage.” Later on, during and after the film’s climax, in which Balkan very nearly succeeds in unlocking the secrets of the Ninth Gate (it’s never really explained what the Ninth Gate is, beyond the ability of the individual to acquire a sort of immortality and/or dark knowledge) but ends up simply immolating himself, Corso is gifted the final piece of the puzzle. Returning to the site of Balkan’s death, he crosses the Ninth Gate himself.
That return is key. Corso criss-crosses the continent in order to fulfill the terms of the rite, something he perhaps only subconsciously knew he was doing beforehand; at this point, though, it is executed with the fullest intent. Stale as Depp plays Corso, the character arc is a singular one: the laser-like focus with which he pursues his quarry — a book, a fee, the supernatural — carries him through what seems to be a subtle victory or two (i.e., the requisite “It’s not about the money” moment), but really he’s running in place, allowing some outside force to dictate his every move.
The value of obsession is open to debate. On the one hand, giving oneself over to a greater cause or power is a basic tenant of most faiths; on the other hand, we also harbor an intrinsic fear of not being in control of our own destinies, regardless of what, how or to whom we pray. What is not open to debate, however, is its power. It can turn us into shadows of ourselves, golems — or something else entirely.