Some films are the victims of audience expectations, and that's certainly true of The Ninth Gate, which saw Roman Polanski apparently return to the horror genre but with very different results and tone to Rosemary's Baby in a film that left horror fans and admirers of its source novel alike feeling shortchanged. Based on Arturo Peréz-Reverte's The Dumas Club, but throwing out its parallel story revolving around a lost chapter from The Three Musketeers that many found the book's most interesting part as well as dropping the literary allusions in general and parallels to Dumas' novel in particular, it revolves around amoral rare book dealer Johnny Depp's ill-fated attempts to authenticate a rare book for ruthless billionaire publisher Frank Langella. It seems that The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows was co-written by the Devil himself, and Langella wants to meet the author, something the book's nine engravings give instructions for - but only if interpreted in the right way and only if the book, one of only three remaining copies to survive the bonfires of Inquisition, is not a forgery. Naturally Depp's attempts to compare and decipher the volumes leave a mounting trail of dead bodies in his wake and put his life and immortal soul (if he has one) in danger as he finds himself shadowed by fatale femmes Emmanuelle Seigner's 'guardian angel,' who demonstrates her supernatural credentials with a couple of bits of wire work that seem to have crept in from another picture, and Lena Olin's devilish millionairess.
But rather than playing it all as a po-faced horror movie, Polanski chooses a more slyly mischievous and playful tone, its Satanic double-dealings more the stuff of black comedy than a black mass. Certainly it's hard to take many of the details seriously: these books are worth millions of pounds, yet no-one wears gloves to handle them, people casually flick through the pages with a drink or a cigarette in hand, even pressing down the spine to read them, ensuring that the only truly horrified members of the audience are obsessive bibliophiles. Unfortunately if you won't be scared, you're also unlikely to be thrilled as it winds down from the mildly quirky into the increasingly routine and it's let down badly, as are pretty much all let's-go-to-Hell movies, by the is-that-all? ending, which leaves you wondering if this journey down the left handed path was really necessary. Still, there's a delightful cameo from Jose Lopez Rodero, the film's production manager and the assistant director of many shot-in-Spain epics such as El Cid, King of Kings, Papillon and Patton, as eccentric twin Spanish book dealers (one dubbed by Polanski himself) and a couple of workmen, and there are a few nice little bits of business along the way that help mitigate the inevitable first-time disappointment on a second viewing.
The DVD extras are a lot less impressive than they sound, though: a very short trailer, a two-minute featurette, a gallery of the satanic engravings and a not terribly interesting commentary from Polanski, though Wojciech Kilar's fine score, mixing the portentous dread of his work for Bram Stoker's Dracula with a wry comic theme, gets an isolated track of its own.