Marginalia of the mind: A critical analysis of “The Ninth Gate” (1999)

I know we did a Polanski movie not too long ago, but “The Ninth Gate” is a film that deserves more examination. I just went on a horror bender–who woulda thunkit?–and despite “Ninth” being the longest film of the lot, it sped by like a 90-minute feature, and I mean that as a compliment.

The film is unquestionably a horror film, and while it has been called a thriller, it has never been comfortably critiqued as a psychological horror film, at least as far as I know. This is strange to me. Not the thriller thing–that keeps it out of the mystery-science gutter–but the psychological horror aspects of the film are not only very apparent, they open up the movie to intriguing interpretations.

It is not a stretch to say that the horror onscreen is mostly natural: drowning, strangulation, immolation. There is no question that much of havoc wreaked is the result of human hands. What does appear to be supernatural is usually linked to one character: a young woman, played by Emmanuelle Seigner, whose history is never explained.

More than once, her eyes appear to change color; another time, she descends down a flight of stairs faster and smoother than is humanly possible, and she bears an uncanny resemblance to a character in one of the engravings Johnny Depp’s Dean Corso is investigating. However, there is decent filmic fodder to suggest that the more unusual events onscreen are happening in Corso’s mind.

First, the film itself is Lovecraftian in structure. Not many reviewers have called the film “Lovecraftian” (although there have been more than one), and I’m sure that’s mostly due to the its use of medieval Christian folklore to build its mythology. However, if the book Corso pursued was penned by Abdul Alhazred and AZTH instead of Aristide Torchai and LCF, there wouldn’t be any question. As well as an ancient tome as its macguffin, the film features a bookish loner for its hero and a centuries old cult trying to conjure cosmic entities as part of its intrigue.

At the very least, the film is Lovecraft sensitive. With those associations, “Ninth” invokes H. P. Lovecraft’s history of psychological horror. His narrators might not be as unreliable as Edgar Allan Poe’s, but they certainly doubt their own sanity throughout the course of their paranormal adventures.

There is another thing that puts Corso in line with the average Lovecraftian hero. He is a man with no romantic attachments and no social circle to speak of. Early in the film, medievalist Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) bluntly asks Corso, “You don’t like me very much, do you?” Corso assures him that he does not.

Later, Corso tells Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford) that he does not expect people to say good things about him, which is fine with him because being spoken of well can be harmful in his profession. As beneficial as Corso might think his behavior is for his job, it does him no favors psychologically. As he observes increasingly dangerous and strange phenomena, he has no shoulders to cry on, and he has no one to either confirm or deny his reality. We, as an audience, are actually in the same predicament.

At one point in the film, Corso is sapped on the back of the head while studying one of the copies of the book. For the sequence, the camera initially views him framed alone, then it switches to a POV shot so the audience can experience the blackout with him. This functions as a visual reminder that the narrative of the film, at least from our vantage point, occurs entirely from Corso’s perspective. Few shots do not feature him, and there are no scenes without him. But how unclouded his perspective is is up to debate.

Corso drinks a lot, about as much as a private detective in an average Raymond Chandler novel. We see Corso drink, and we see him drink often. We rarely see him eat. Corso drinks most of his meals. Perhaps it is his means of dealing with the oddities he encounters, but for us in the audience, it’s a suggestion that his experience of things might not be sober.

Viewers should at least consider the possibility that Corso, far from home and possessing a psychological support about the width of a bottleneck, might be a victim of paranoia as much as the paranormal. Which is not to undermine supernatural readings of the film. Far from it, a psychological reading simply enriches the horror onscreen. Besides, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

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