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IN SHORT: Director Roman Polanski's Revenge on America, or, Who needs a Key to Hell when you can sit through this horror? [Rated R for some violence and sexuality, 133 minutes]
Y'know how you an walk out of a turkey and say to your friend's "gee, the trailer made this look so good!!"? Cranky walked muttering different four letter words about this absolutely awful, intolerable, poorly acted, scareflick lacking almost any scares at all and such a bad grasp of the English vernacular that parts of the dialog had a packed room full of critics laughing hysterically back at the screen.
Cranky can't say that he didn't have advance warning. Star Johnny Depp refused to talk about The Ninth Gate when we spoke with him for CrankyCritic® StarTalk. Depp said "Let's just say I'm not happy with the finished product" and left it at that. So, we talked about other scary stuff all of which was a lot more interesting than The Ninth Gate. In the flick,an amoral, probably atheistic rare book dealer discovers a code within the graphic engravings of three seventeenth century books called "The Nine Gates of the Shadows of Hell" that will allow the codebreaker to summon Satan himself. But before you get to the real story you have to sit through an almost interminable title sequence as you're visually taken through the nine gates, each unlocking another set of title credits of the folks who shall forever burn for making this movie.
Three books. Three extremely wealthy owners all maniacally possessive about their book. One owner, Andrew Telfer, commits suicide after selling his copy to Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) which lays the first stone in a winding path leading to all Hell breaking Loose on Earth. Balkan hires amoral unbeliever Dean Corso (Depp) to confirm the authenticity of the Telfer copy (each book is referred to by the name of its owner). This means a very large check and an extended trip to Europe. Before he can leave, Depp meets with the widow Liana Telfer (Lena Olin) about her ex-husband's acquisition of the book. The widow Telfer claims the book wasn't her husband's to sell. She'll later rip Depp's clothes off and try to [you know] him into submission. She doesn't get the book, but the man who has been hiding it for Corso is murdered. Danger and Mystery set up, so far so good, though Polanski's direction is slow paced and looks likes bits and pieces from other movies -- the critics around me were calling off lists of obscure indie flicks I'd never heard of.
In Spain, Corso talks with identical twin bookmakers who A) finish each others sentences; B) are both played by one actor, José López Rodero and C) point out a small discrepancy in the Telfer copy's graphic images. Three of the nine plates are not marked with the letters AT, after author Aristide Torchia, who allegedly co-wrote the book with Lucifer himself. These variant plates are marked LCF, the implication being, duh, obvious. Examining the copy owned by Victor Fargas (Jack Taylor) later on, Corso discovers the same discrepancies in that book, in three different plates. At this point it only takes a single digit IQ to figure out the "mystery" of the books or the identity of a blonde "student" (Emmanuelle Seigner) who conveniently crosses Corso's path on his travels or conveniently shows up to save his butt when a tough looking black guy with platinum blonde hair stomps him good to steal the Telfer copy back. Corso, we should note, keeps the book wrapped in an oilcloth in a canvas bookbag and smokes cigarettes like a chimney. This, we take it, is to mean he is incredibly self assured and impervious to rain or ashes falling on centuries old tomes worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.
The third copy of the book, in France, is owned by a noted writer about things Satanic, the wheelchair confined Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), and while it also has discrepancies, the Baroness reveals that the Telfer copy is used as the centerpiece of an annual Satanic ritual / orgy by jaded, ultra-rich folk of a Secret Society called the Order of the Silver Serpent.
The screening room groaned when we heard that one. Perhaps, if Polanski had beaten Kubrick to the gate with this bomb, we could have been spared Eyes Wide Shut.
The Baroness is, of course, murdered and Corso is seen fleeing the scene of the crime. That's supposed to build tension and put Corso on the run towards his final destiny, at wherever the orgy is to take place. Does it work? No. Is there tension? No. Are there moments that are so painfully acted you wonder if the actors present just wanted to say their lines the way the director told them, so they could get the hell home? Dozens.
By the time you hit the end, when The Ninth Gate is opened, do you get a big "wow" ending that more than two hours of turpid moviemaking have been leading you to? Or, more to the point, do you understand in the slightest what happens when that big ending comes, and why? Not a clue.
Trust Cranky. It's fully detailed in the press notes we were given, which you will not have, and what is in black and white in my lap is absolutely nothing like what I just saw on screen.
Depp starts off fine. He's a vulture in the book world, has few friends and keeps his enemies close to the vest. Not the kind of person to just drop and have a roll with a mysterious stranger on a train. Idiot. Langella is pompous and tries hard to project a rich, evil sheen which makes him look even more ridiculous when his true motives are revealed. Emmanuelle Singer as a traveling student? Cranky didn't buy it for a second, 'cuz Mrs. Polanski looks way too old to fit the mold of a travelling student.
As for everything else mysterious or supernatural, The Ninth Gate pretty much clues you in hours before you "get there" and it is literally hours before you get there. Dramatic tension levels rarely move above zero. The score doesn't build up frights. The dialog is laughable and almost every actor looked like he/she wanted to be somewhere else. I'm repeating myself so I'll stop.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Ninth Gate, he would have paid...
and worth every penny
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