When critics and fans talk about the film of The Exorcist, they rarely bring up what writer William Peter Blatty considered one of the core themes of the book: Father Karras’ renewal of his lost faith through witnessing the possession of Regan MacNeil and the exorcism of the demon. Sadly, this theme is overshadowed by all the spinning heads, pea soup regurgitation, and unauthorized use of crucifixes.
This theme of lost and regained faith is better addressed in The Ninth Configuration. An abandoned castle in Northern California has been turned into an asylum for U.S. soldiers who, during their service in Vietnam, began exhibiting strange and often colorful behavior. The inmates also include an astronaut, Captain Cutshaw, who aborted a moon mission at the last minute, screaming, “There’s nothing up there!” But the inmates’ rather idyllic isolation and lunacy will be challenged when a new psychiatrist, Colonel Kane, arrives to take charge. I will say no more to avoid giving away the story; suffice to say that in the world of The Ninth Configuration, nothing is quite what it appears to be.
The film originally started life as a novel Blatty wrote in the 1960s called Twinkle Twinkle “Killer” Kane. After the success of The Exorcist, Blatty had the inspiration and the clout to rewrite the novel as The Ninth Configuration, turning the work from a one-joke satire to a more serious (though often hilarious) story about faith, man’s capacity for violence, redemption, the nature of evil, the existence of God, and the difficulties of adapting the works of Shakespeare for dogs.
As strange as such a summary seems, it encapsulates fairly well the nature of The Ninth Configuration. Part comedy, part drama, part mystery, it’s perhaps the ultimate cult film.
Blatty wisely lets the story unfold slowly, giving the viewer time to put the pieces of this rather odd puzzle together. At times the film seems almost like a stage play; there are long dialogue and monologue sequences. At other times, Blatty uses the techniques of cinema rather than the theater to tell the story: the detailed architecture of the castle; dream, fantasy, and flashback sequences. There is an almost unbearable scene in a bar where the tension builds and builds…and builds some more. The inevitable violence is a short, sharp, shock. Not all of Blatty’s tricks work. The low budget shows its seams at times, and at least one fantasy sequence was cut because of test audience giggles (the scene, in which crucified angels discuss the asylum’s inmates, is available on the DVD as one of the deleted scenes). But those are rare, and forgivable, instances.
Where the strength of The Ninth Configuration truly lies is in its actors. The film is an actor’s dream, with so much give-and-take, so many good lines and monologues, that it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite (although mine is probably “Robert Browning had the clap, and he caught it from Charlotte and Emily Bronte. He caught it from BOTH of them.”). And the actors are a director’s (and movie-watcher’s dream). You may not recognize the names, but you’ll know the faces: Ed Flanders (who would be in Blatty’s Exorcist 3/Legion), Jason Miller (also in The Exorcist and Exorcist 3/Legion), Joe Spinell (of Maniac and Taxi Driver fame), Robert Loggia (also in Lost Highway), Neville Brand (World War 2 hero and actor in many films), and many more. All are superb.
But best of all are Stacy Keach as Kane and Scott Wilson as Cutshaw, which is all the more amazing considering that both were last-minute replacements for the actors originally slated for their roles (Nicol Williamson and Michael Moriarty, respectively). Keach does a balancing act as Kane, shifting easily from calm and compassion to almost demonic rage, making his inner struggles clear without overacting. Wilson plays Cutshaw as the sad happy man; his Groucho Marx antics and funny rants never hide the pain in his soul, the pain that is never assuaged until the film’s amazing final scene.
The Ninth Configuration has had one of cinema’s rockier roads. Numerous cuts of varying lengths have circulated at one time or another. Blatty himself withdrew the film from circulation three times, when it was edited poorly or advertised misleadingly. Given this, I’m so delighted to have the film appear on DVD that I’d happily settle for a bare-bones release.
Fortunately, Warner Brothers has put together an excellent release. The film transfer seems fine – it’s a bit muddy and the sound is muffled at times but I suspect much of that lies in the source material. The extras are quite fine – an insightful, informative commentary by Blatty and film scholar Mark Kermode; a featurette that is fun but doesn’t hold up to repeat viewings; a number of deleted scenes, including explanations of why they were cut; and cast biographies and filmographies (which could use an update).
The Ninth Configuration is not a film for those looking for spinning heads and other cheap thrills. Some would call it confusing, others call it boring. I call it one of the more moving films I’ve ever seen. If you’re looking for something that’s both different and rewarding, give it a view.