This was the first post in my long-running series, “Films About Books.” It first ran in 2015.
BY THE DEVIL’S HAND
Roman Polanski’s eerie 1999 thriller, The Ninth Gate, opens with an old guy named Andrew Telfer hanging himself in his library amid shelves crammed with old books. From there we meet sleazy rare book dealer Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), and even sleazier rare book collector Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a gazillionaire who is obsessed with books about Satan. Seems that Balkan has just acquired a copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, written by a seventeenth-century author named Torchia. This is one of only three copies known to exist. Legend has it that Torchia adapted the book from an earlier one written by The Devil himself. It supposedly contains the means to summon Satan and ultimately achieve immortality.
So what does scumbag Balkan want with scumbag Corso? Believing that two of the copies are forgeries, he wants Corso to track down these copies, both with collectors in Europe, compare them with his copy, and bring back the authentic one—by any means possible. Corso agrees—for a humongous fee. Balkan entrusts his copy, which he recently purchased from the now deceased Andrew Telfer, to Corso.
Early on, Corso realizes that he might be in over his head. His apartment has been searched, and it appears that he’s being followed—in particular by a young woman. He hides the book at a friend’s used bookstore until he can finish some research before leaving for Europe. Good move, because Telfer’s widow, Liana (Lena Olin), shows up at Corso’s place and says that she wants it back, that Telfer had originally bought it for her. She first jumps his bones, and when that fails she smacks him silly and leaves empty-handed.
With an albino guy, later identified as Liana’s bodyguard, on his tail, Corso retrieves The Nine Gates from his friend’s bookstore. Unfortunately, he finds his friend murdered, his body hung in a pose from one of the engravings in the book. Time to go…
Corso first travels to Toledo, Spain, where renowned book restorers—elderly twin brothers—show him that three of the engravings in Balkan’s copy are signed “LCF,” which he interprets to mean that Lucifer designed them. Next stop: Portugal, where he examines a copy of The Nine Gates owned by an old man named Victor Fargas. He finds that three different engravings bear the “LCF” signature, and they also vary in details from their counterparts in Balkan’s copy. Leaving the house, he is nearly run down by Liana’s bodyguard. The young woman that had also been following him arrives on a motorcycle and scares the albino off. Known only as “The Girl,” she is there to help him. Corso assumes that, like him, she is working for Balkan.
The next morning The Girl takes Corso to Fargas’s house, where they find the old man dead, his copy of The Nine Gates burned after the pages with the engravings had been removed. They fly to Paris, where The Girl disappears as Corso stands in the Customs line. Corso visits an elderly woman, Baroness Kessler, who owns the third copy of the book. She hates Balkan and refuses to let him look at the book at first, but eventually, intrigued by the differences in the engravings, she allows him access. He finds three other engravings—a total of nine now—signed “LCF,” with variations from both the other copies. As he does his work, someone clocks him, and when he comes to he finds the pages missing, the Baroness dead, and the place on fire. Once again it is time to go.
THE NINE GATES
As he flees the burning building, Corso is attacked by the albino. Once more The Girl comes to his rescue and kicks the crap out of the bad guy, who manages to get away. By now Corso has concluded that all three copies of The Nine Gates are genuine but the ritual to summon Satan can only work by possessing the three sets of “LCF” engravings.
Corso had hidden Balkan’s copy in his hotel room, but when he and The Girl return they find it stolen—by Liana, he is sure. They follow Liana and her bodyguard to a mansion, where they kill the latter after Liana orders him to take them down to the dungeon and shoot them. Next, they witness Liana leading a Satanic ritual for a whole lot of Rich Bored Folks, using Balkan’s copy of The Nine Gates. That’s when Balkan himself brazenly bursts in, calls them all a bunch of posers, kills Liana, and exits with his book and the engraving copies as the Rich Bored Folks scatter for their limos to get the hell outta Dodge. Corso and The Girl try to follow him but are unsuccessful, and they part ways.
Let’s call a SPOILER ALERT on the rest of this. Back in Paris, Corso studies a postcard of a remote castle that he had removed from the Baroness’s copy of The Nine Gates, sent to her a long time ago by Balkan. He’d seen it before, in one of the engravings. He travels there and finds Balkan preparing the summoning ritual, the nine engraving pages laid out in a particular order. As he tries to stop Balkan, Corso falls through some rotted floor boards and is trapped. Now he must watch as Balkan recites phrases from the engravings then douses himself—and everything else—with gasoline and sets himself on fire, figuring that nothing will happen to him. Wrong-o! As he turns into a crispy critter and screams, Corso pulls himself free. He kills Balkan—probably did him a favor—grabs the pages and flees.
Outside, he climbs into Balkan’s SUV and finds—surprise!—The Girl, who jumps his bones as the whole castle goes up in flames. When finished, she tells him that Balkan screwed up, that the ninth engraving was a forgery. How can Corso find it? By returning to the shop of the twin brothers in Spain. And then, once again, she disappears.
In Toledo, Corso finds the book restorers’ shop gone, the last piece of furniture being removed. As he helps the movers, a sheet of paper flutters down from the top. It’s the ninth engraving, different from any that he’s seen up to this point. It depicts the burning castle, and in front of it the image of The Girl, naked and in the throes of sex. Holy Toledo! (Sorry…)
In the final scene, Corso is walking back into the burning castle. Apparently he has performed (or will perform) the ritual correctly and will soon pass through the Ninth Gate. Creepy! But no surprise…he wasn’t exactly the nicest guy.
If you’re thinking this was another weird role for Johnny Depp…well, you’re right. Though a bit slowly paced, The Ninth Gate is an atmospheric film that will doubtless raise a few goosebumps.