The Ninth Gate

The Ninth Gate (1999)
Artisan Entertainment
Cast: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Storyboards, Gallery of Satanic Drawings, Isolated Music Score, Cast and Crew Information, Production Notes, Trailers

"The Ninth Gate" returns director Roman Polanski to the supernatural turf previously tread in such earlier efforts as "Repulsion" and "Rosemary’s Baby." ("The Fearless Vampire Killers" played up more of the laughs than the screams.) In the 30 years transpiring since those excursions in terror, the subtle horror film has had a rough time of it. In these days of CGI shock effects or the slaughterhouse stand-up of Freddy and Chucky, the ability to unnerve delicately should not be underestimated. With "Gate," Polanski again wields his mastery of realizing the uneasy. Respecting such aesthetic authority, Artisan Home Entertainment has responded in like by creating a thoroughly exhaustive DVD of the film, leaving no altar stone unturned in examining the genesis, creation and selling of the film.

Johnny Depp stars as Dean Corso, an antique book "detective" who specializes in tracking down rare tomes. Publisher Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), owner of a vast occult library, retains Corso to authenticate his copy of a 300-year-old book called "The Nine Gates of the Shadow Kingdom." We learn that the blasphemous text purportedly contains a series of incantations, fleshed out in nine engravings, which can conjure Ol’ Scratch himself. Convicted of heresy in 1666 (hint, hint), the author and all his works were consigned to the purifying flames of the stake. Three copies somehow survived and Boris wants his verified as the genuine article.

Pursuing an unholy Grail, Corso finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into an abyss of deceit, murder and, possibly, damnation. With every new relevation, every person he encounters, a puzzle of profane dimensions begins to form. Swirling around these sacrilegious volumes are Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), wife of the owner of one copy and Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), a wheelchair-bound demonologist, both hell-bent (sorry — couldn’t resist) on protecting their unhallowed holdings. An enigmatic drifter (Emmanuelle Seigner) also figures prominently. Her mysterious eyes and uncanny knack for appearing in the right place at the right time definitely qualifies her as an emissary of some kind. What Corso eventually discovers not only challenges his sanity, but his concepts of a moral universe.

Not in the same league as "Chinatown" or "Rosemary’s Baby," "Gate" succeeds as an efficient, polished thriller. As with practically all Polanski films, a seemingly unsympathetic protagonist propels the narrative. Our introduction to Corso finds him raiding an invalid’s library of a priceless copy of "Don Quixote." He acknowledges the power of comprehension contained in books, but his is a cold awareness of the intellect’s light. His coda? "I believe in my percentage." Yet we undertake the journey with Corso in unraveling the mystery of the Nine Gates even if our connection implies a complicity in his actions and, perhaps, a shared responsibility with his fate. What distances "Gate" from being too heavy handed in its morality is Polanski’s trademark gallows humor, which occasionally punctuates the creepy proceedings. When Corso realizes Balkan’s intentions with the book and the assumed frustrations with his copy, he sarcastically remarks, "What, the Devil didn’t appear?"

The video transfer is nothing short of perfection. The 2.35 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> image is free of blemishes and defects and mastered to a smooth finish. Black levels are solid and deep with the smallest details practically jumping off the screen, down to page textures and worn bindings. Fleshtones are completely natural and the color balance shows remarkable fidelity, preserving Darius Khondji’s atmospheric cinematography, which favors burnished amber tones and numerous diffusion effects. There are no digital or compression artifacts of any kind.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 audio track similarly does not disappoint. At times, the surrounds are extremely busy with traffic noises, forest sounds and ritual chants. However, Polanski’s use of digital sound does not pummel or beat the viewer into submission. The discrete audio palette subtly invokes a feeling of dread and the clarity of 5.1 magnifies that discord to an almost unbearable level, even if registering minutely on a SPL meter. The soundtrack teems with disturbing sound effects like screeching brakes or the friction of metal against metal, demonstrating yet again that a good horror film pierces subliminally.

The music score by Wojciech Kilar is at times extremely unsettling, at other times downright comical (one motif vaguely sounds reminiscent of a music cue from "Ghostbusters"). The DVD offers viewers the option of isolating the music track, presenting the film with music only. At random, I chose certain scenes that are dialogue-free and filled with ominous camera angles. Indeed, with music only, those scenes hearkened back to the mood and atmosphere of silent horror flicks.

The supplemental materials are vast on this disc, not the least of which is a quite engaging, if somewhat low-key, full-length commentary by Polanski himself.
Tidbits, ranging from how the credits were created to why he doesn’t like revisiting his films, pour forth though sometimes haltingly. At the start, he comments how strange it is to be sitting in his office, watching the film and talking about it. Be patient, though. His perceptions of how the film is a "fairy tale for adults" or the practical aspects of achieving a visual mix of "realism with mystery" make the commentary more than pay off. (Halfway through, he jokes about how long the movie is and now he must light up a cigar if he is to continue.) Sometimes, there is too much insight. Knowing the physical location of each set or the French union laws about the 50km rule for demarcating local versus location shooting is not something I necessarily need to be privy to. Whether discussing how Khondji captures "the opposition of cold and warm light" in a specific scene or how a blue screen shot does not work because the background elements are disproportionate to the foreground actor, Polanski proves his own observation that he enjoys "being on the set and solving problems that come up every day." (Probably the best piece of advice for a budding filmmaker or an "auteur cineaste.")

Other extras include three theatrical trailers for the film, each in a slightly different variation. Presented in 1.85 <$PS,widescreen> with 5.1 audio, the trailers present three different ways Artisan Entertainment marketed the film to the public. Swinging from traditional Gothic to "Lethal Omen," the previews show that Artisan covered all the bases in creating awareness for the film. The cast & crew bios and the production notes are better than average, offering some enlightenment without being hampered by too much PR jargon.

The Storyboard Selections examine six scenes from the film, offering a text versus storyboard analysis for each scene. Using random access, one can watch the section and instantly zoom to the scene in the film to compare how accurately (or effectively) the initial conceptualization matches the final product. During the commentary, Polanski mentions that because of his art background, he will do rough production sketches for some of the more complicated scenes. Although not credited, I imagine that the sketches shown are indeed his. For me, this section dramatically illustrates how the film frame is a canvas and filling it with compelling information, but not obviously so, separates a proficient director from a storytelling master.

The Gallery of Satanic Drawings is a still frame gallery of each of the nine engravings as depicted in the film, along with a brief, explanatory verse of their significance. (In keeping with the tone of the film, the gallery provides two versions of each drawing. Once you watch the film, you’ll get the in-joke.)

The featurette is only 2 minutes long. Containing film clips, behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews with Polanski, Deep and Langella, the segment is a standard edited feature created for TV newscast consumption. The cover refers to "TV Spots" as a supplemental extra, which are included as "Easter Eggs" on the release. (For a thorough listing of the "Easter Eggs" on this DVD and how to access them, please consult our Hidden Features section.) Animated menus highlighting concepts from the film round out the disc’s features.

At one point, Polanski remarks that "atmosphere is very important because it makes you forget you are sitting in a theater." With DVDs as quality conscious and as meticulous as "The Ninth Gate," you’ll forget you’re sitting in a home theater.