Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration (1980)
William Peter Blatty will forever be known as the author and writer of The Exorcist, but it’s his 1980 directorial debut which is arguably the more interesting contribution to cinema. To date, Blatty has directed only one other film; the deeply intelligent and thought-provoking “Exorcist 3” (1990).
Often thought of as a mysterious slice of eclectic cult cinema, Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration is based on two versions of his earlier novel “Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane”. It’s a film hard to assign to any particular genre, embodying elements of a psychological thriller and the darkest of comedies. Ostensibly, the plot is based on a US army psychiatrist, Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), who is sent to a gothic castle housing officers claiming to be crazy; his task to ascertain whether these patients are truly insane or whether they are ‘faking’ it to avoid tours of duty. Blatty confidently pitches the whole thing as a pseudo mash-up of “Once Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” with the meta-physical themes of good and evil seared into his Exorcist mythology.
Initial impressions of the film usually focus on the vibrant selection of actors that make up the cast of patients. First up is Capt. Cutshaw, played by a wild-eyed Scott Wilson in a career defining performance. Here’s a former astronaut whose crisis of faith drove him to abort a NASA mission to the moon during take-off (“And what if I got there – got to the moon – and couldn’t get back? Sure, everyone dies but I am afraid to die alone, so far from home. And if there’s no God, then that’s really, really alone”). Then there’s Jason Miller’s ‘Reno’, something of a side-kick to Wilson’s Cutshaw character and his idiosyncratic condition leads him to canine recreations of the works of Shakespeare. Robert Loggia as a cerebrally batshit lieutenant and Moses Gunn in a superman costume are delightful additions and that’s without the cameo of Joe Spinell. The staff at the facility include the ever-dependable Ed Flanders as the medic and a youthful Tom Atkins as one of the guards.
This is a mighty collection of character actors, clearly having fun with the flinchingly funny script and the theatrics of it all. Despite the feel of a screwball farce, there’s heavy symbolism beneath the comedic charade. The film asks some resolute questions about man’s motivations for good and his relationship with a seemingly uncaring and detached God. It may be difficult to imagine genuine celluloid tension emanating from these kinds of venturesome themes but Blatty pulls it off, demonstrating an incredulous ability to build suspense from the philosophical dialogue sequences peppered throughout the screenplay. Here’s a choice-cut of dialogue from early on in the movie:
Colonel Kane: You’re convinced that God is dead because there’s evil in the world?
Capt. Cutshaw: Correct!
Colonel Kane: Then why don’t you think he’s alive because of the goodness in the world?
Much of this antipathy is developed in the confrontational scenes between Keach and Wilson who play the dynamic brilliantly with Wilson’s Cutshaw probing Keach’s Colonel Kane to find just one example of genuine, self-less goodness. But really it’s the ‘bar scene’ in the film’s final 15 minutes which earns the greatest accolade for suspense as Keach hits breaking-point to validate the motivation of goodness in this world.
We later find out – SPOILERS – that Colonel Kane himself is not quite who he appears to be but is instead a cold-blooded killer who returns from Vietnam under the mental illusion that he’s his brother, a real army psychiatrist (and castle medic Ed Flanders), in order to cope with his mental instability after he’s gone full-postal in Vietnam. The staff apprevehensively let Kane act this fantasy out in the hope that it will give an indication as to how to cure both himself of the evil he’s committed and act as a remedy to his fellow patients’ delusional parananoias.
This would all be sufficient to make a timeless film but aesthetically it also gives in spades. The photography on display and visual imagery throughout the film is arresting and dashingly beautiful. The most obvious example being an iconic and jaw-dropping lunar crucifixion of Jesus, but it’s difficult to single out one scene when so many showcase the aesthetic skill of Gerry Fisher’s cinematography. The gothic ambience of the castle’s exterior – executed in the highest-order during the film’s opening credits – may suggest the picture’s horror credentials, but they are just a canvass for a movie which is resolutely not out to scare you but to exercise your mind.
The closing coda is touching and brings the film full-circle, perhaps authenticating the idea of a life after death; albeit with some ambiguity depending on the cut of the movie you’ve seen.
The Ninth Configuration is spunky, it’s deep and often unfathomable but it’s a film to dwell on, perhaps for life.
Hotdog rating: 10/10