"Some books are dangerous, not to be opened with impunity."

Controversial director Roman Polanski manages to pull off the difficult Hitchcock-esque trick of keeping the viewer enthralled by the fairly sedate story of a search for forbidden knowledge hidden among the closely guarded manuscript collections of Europe's ageing dynasties.

Johnny Depp actually plays a character, rather than a caricature in his portrayal of Dean Corso, a mercenary freelance bibliophile. Concerned only with profit, Corso is employed to authenticate a rare and valuable occult work, which is itself steeped in rumour and folklore. As his investigations continue, a formerly hidden, and yet altogether darker design slowly reveals itself, finally crossing the boundary between historical curiosity and contemporary reality.

Veteran actor Frank Langella is definitely the unsung hero of The Ninth Gate, and he's more than a match for Depp on screen. His understated menace as the pathologically cold publishing magnate Boris Balkan completely convinces the viewer that they are in the presence of a man who has already gone to, and will go to any lengths to achieve his dark design. He is the shadowy and obsessive puppet master, controlling events from within his private library or from the end of the phone line, seemingly much closer to the action than he appears to be.

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"The terrible thing about the truth is that sometimes you find it."

With this stylishly shot tale of intrigue and Vatican politics, the modern movie industry shines a technicolour spotlight on what had previously been an obscure and secretive folk ritual. Screenwriter and director Brian Helgeland expertly blends arcane ritual with Catholic chic as it lifts the lid on a timeless world of forbidden knowledge and those mortals who seek it out.

The late Heath Ledger heads up a cast of well-crafted and entertaining characters as he attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding his mentor's apparent suicide, a cardinal sin for a man who was already excommunicated. Ledger's portrayal of Alex Bernier puts an accessible face on this tale of high ritual and realpolitik.

Bernier and his friend Thomas Garrett are the last of the Carolingians, a Catholic order that still embraces the unsanitised church of angels and demons, possession and exorcism. Although something of an embarrassment to the modern Vatican orthodoxy, the two young priests are tasked with investigating rumours that their excommunicated mentor had found redemption through the Other, the Sin Eater.

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"He sounded quite mad, and yet I believed every word he said."

The late Richard Burton is in fine form as the tortured and occasionally repentant bringer of death and mayhem to those unfortunates who become entangled with his own dark destiny. It's often been said that Hollywood's gain was literature's loss as Burton decided to follow the call of the stage over the comfort of the study. The Medusa Touch gave him the unique chance to blend both roles as he brilliantly portrays conflicted and misanthropic author, John Morlar.

Bludgeoned beyond hope of recovery in the opening scene, Morlar's strange and haunted life is retraced through a series of interviews and encounters, doggedly unravelled by world weary French detective Inspector Brunel. Director Jack Gold deftly builds and maintains an omnipresent and growing sense of menace in every mundane scene as Brunel slowly wrings the hidden truth from a reluctant cast of characters including barristers, publishers and neighbours, who are all deathly afraid of the nearly dead man without really knowing why. Lee Remick's performance as the rational therapist who begins to doubt everything she knows is crucial to drawing both Brunel and the viewer into Morlar's own inevitable descent into insanity.

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"Is it possible that there are no coincidences?"

Perhaps not a movie that readily springs to mind when considering the subject of occultism, but nonetheless M. Night Shyamalan's tale of mystic revelation is just filled with archetypal drama. The power of things unseen is experienced through the losses and struggles of very ordinary people living very ordinary lives. It's just a case of digging below the surface and looking beyond the rural farming community in which this fantastical yet very human story is told.

Indeed, it is to Shyamalan's credit that he chose a community tied to the earth within which to base his story of extra-terrestrial aggression. It is the very isolation of the Hess family which makes their story all the more compelling, as it gives a refreshing perspective on the whole alien invasion drama, as the central characters are both far removed from and yet at the very epicentre of the action.

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