[Screen It]

(1999) (Johnny Depp, Frank Langella) (R)

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Suspense: Hired by a scholar of demonology to prove that two other copies of a 17th century manual of satanic invocation are fakes, a "book detective" sets out on what becomes an increasingly dangerous assignment.
Dean Corso (JOHNNY DEPP) is a highly adept, but unscrupulous New York "book detective" who finds rare books for wealthy collectors. Thus, it's quite natural for a scholar of demonology, Boris Balkan (FRANK LANGELLA) to hire him for his expertise. It seems that Balkan has acquired one of three existing copies of "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows" from a fellow collector who's just committed suicide.

While the book - a 17th century manual supposedly written by the Devil himself and containing nine engravings that if interpreted correctly can reportedly be used to summon that author -- is now one of Balkan's most prized possessions, he's not completely sure of its authenticity, and thus wants Corso to find the other two copies and prove that they're forgeries.

Although initially reluctant, the large payment Balkan promises Corso eventually convinces him and he sets out to learn about the book as well as track down and compare the two other copies located overseas. It's not long after he begins his investigation, however, that things start to get strange and dangerous. After meeting Liana Telfer (LENA OLIN), the window of the suicidal collector, Corso finds that there's a mysterious blond woman (EMMANUELLE SEIGNER) who seems to be following him, and then discovers that a book friend of his has been murdered along the lines of an engraving from the book.

Once in Europe, Corso continues his investigation that eventually leads him to meet the book dealing Ceniza brothers (both played by JOSÉ LÓPEZ RODERO), as well as Victor Fargas (JACK TAYLOR) and the wheelchair bound Baroness Kessler (BARBARA JEFFORD), who own the second and third copies of the book respectively.

As Corso discovers more revealing facts about the books and finds that he has an ally of sorts in the mysterious blond woman, he must not only contend with Balkan's repeated demands to succeed at his task no matter what the cost, but also with a sinister hit man (TONY AMONI) who's targeted him, as well as surprising revelations about certain characters and their interest in the book.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
In the movies, as in life, anticipation can either be a good or bad thing, depending on whether the outcome matches the expectation leading up to it. For example, anticipation of one's first kiss makes the date preceding it rather exciting (if not nerve-racking), while the butterflies associated with waiting in line and then climbing the first hill of some massive roller coaster makes the ride that much more exhilarating.

As far as movies are concerned, anticipation usually comes from one of two sources. The most common is that which occurs before a film is released, such as with last summer's "Star Wars" prequel, and that's usually caused by studio promotions and their efforts to generate "buzz" about their latest product.

The second form and appearance of anticipation is when a film builds up so much intrigue and interest about how it will unfold and ultimately end - all by how it begins - that the viewer may be apt to get giddy over the prospects of what will transpire. When that's accompanied by a well-crafted look and overall solid filmmaking approach, the effect is only heightened. While this second form of anticipation isn't always as common as the first, it's often far more fun since it's usually unexpected.

Of course, when a film can generate both types of anticipation, it's so much the better for both it and the viewer. Yet, just like a lousy first kiss or a let-down of a ride, if the expectations are not met - in full or sometimes even in part - the resulting effect is often more disappointing than a film that's bad from the get-go. Director Roman Polanski's first film in six years, "The Ninth Gate," unfortunately follows that pattern.

While clearly not of the pre-release anticipation caliber of George Lucas' film, for those who are fans of, or at least familiar with, Polanski's previous work, his latest effort is a much anticipated event. After all, this is the first time the Oscar nominated director of films such as "Chinatown" and "Tess" has returned to the horror genre since 1968's critically lauded classic, "Rosemary's Baby."

The tale of a book detective of sorts who's hired by a demonologist to find copies of a book that reportedly can summon the Devil himself, the film opens with a solid premise and fair amount of intrigue about how things will unfold. Benefiting from a wonderful and highly visualized look from Polanski, cinematographer Darius Khondji ("Seven," "Evita") and production designer Dean Tavoularis ("The Godfather" films, "Apocalypse Now"), as well as an effective and haunting score by composer Wojciech Kilar ("The Truman Show," "The Portrait of a Lady"), the film sets the appropriate tone and atmosphere of creepy things to come.

Unfortunately, and despite the setup and intriguing premise found in the film's first half (not to mention one of the better opening credit sequences seen in any film in some time), the second half progressively gets worse until it completely falls apart in a disappointing conclusion. Suffering from what I call "The Abyss" factor - named after that film that ultimately couldn't deliver an ending worthy of what preceded it - this film essentially paints itself into a corner from which it can't maneuver to deliver a satisfying ending.

Based on Arturo Pérez-Reverte's 1993 novel "El Club Dumas" (released in the U.S. in 1996), Polanski and screenwriter John Brownjohn ("Tess") also allow the film to run out of gas before getting to the conclusion. Despite the supernatural premise and initially creepy occurrences, the scary and/or suspenseful material diminishes in direct proportion to the film's running time, none of which is helped by the overall hokey quality it takes on near the end.

It also doesn't help that beyond Johnny Depp's ("Sleepy Hollow," "The Astronaut's Wife") solid performance as the book detective, the rest of the characters are either too straightforward or too nebulous in construction to hold our interest. Frank Langella ("Small Soldiers," "Dracula"), playing the Christopher Lee type demonologist/book collector, is too one-dimensional to raise any doubts about his ultimate intentions, while neither Lena Olin ("Mystery Men," "Polish Wedding") nor Emmanuelle Seigner ("Nirvana," "Frantic") manage to maintain any audience interest in their characters once the story bogs down into complacency.

Despite being an absolutely gorgeous looking film and containing a decent premise to jumpstart the proceedings, Polanski and company simply fail to maintain or transfer the momentum, intrigue and spookiness from its first half to the second. Fun and creepy for a while, the film's well runs dry before the audience has satiated their thirst for an unnerving, first class thriller and it ultimately hits rock bottom with an unconvincing and less than satisfactory ending. As such, "The Ninth Gate" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 18, 2000 / Posted March 10, 2000

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