Talkin’ Oldies: The Ninth Configuration (1980)
There have been so many re-cut versions of The Ninth Configuration that it is necessary to explain which version is being reviewed. This Talkin’ Oldies article relates to the Blue Dolphin R2 DVD release, approved by William Peter Blatty as the definitive cut of his film.
Does God exist? If he does why is there so much evil in the world? If he doesn’t why is there so much good in the world? Moreover, is it possible to explain an act of selfless sacrifice without accepting the existence of God? These questions, both deep and philosophical, are central to the entire fabric of William Peter Blatty’s 1980 cult film The Ninth Configuration, based on his own novel Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane. There has never been a film quite like it nor will there be again. This is a uniquely challenging, disturbing, hilarious and theological vision, a film that is impossible to categorise and equally impossible to forget.
In the Pacific Northwest of America lies a fairy-tale castle, imported brick by brick from Germany. The castle is used as a highly experimental psychiatric centre for unbalanced military officers. Among the inmates is astronaut Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), an unerring atheist who cracked up during the final countdown prior to a space launch. Another includes Lt. Reno (Jason Miller), who is trying to produce a Shakespearean show by casting dogs in all the roles. Each of the other inmates are similarly deranged in some way or other.
They are told that a new psychiatrist named Hudson Kane (Stacy Keach) will be joining them. When Kane arrives he is bemused by the wacky antics of his subjects, but responds to them with unwavering patience and gentleness. He is supported by the resident medic Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders) but there seems to be something unusual about Kane himself, with his recurring nightmares and occasional outbursts of temper.
Nonetheless, the ‘lunatics’ seem to be making progress under their new psychiatrist, apart from Cutshaw whose mental issues seem to be caused by his own inability to believe in God or find an explanation to the meaning of life. Cutshaw challenges Kane to provide evidence that God exists – one genuine, real act of selfless sacrifice that he might witness with his own eyes to convince him that there is a greater Power above.
Later, Kane is proved to be even crazier than any of his patients – he is in fact a dangerously disturbed ex-soldier being encouraged to play out the psychiatrist charade as part of his treatment. When Cutshaw learns this he flees from the base, only to fall foul of a gang of thuggish bikers in a local bar. Kane arrives to save Cutshaw from the bikers, but also senses a chance to save him on a spiritual level too….
Seemingly confused and pretentious on the first viewing, The Ninth Configuration gets better and more fascinating the more you revisit it. On the surface it is an exploration of faith, but dig a little deeper and there’s so much more besides. Two-thirds of the film stands out as riotous comedy; there’s an undercurrent of mystery thriller; it could easily serve as a starting point for theological debate; some might even call it a military cousin to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. More obliquely, it is considered by Blatty to be a thematic sequel to his book The Exorcist (the astronaut Billy Cutshaw is the same character to whom Linda Blair scowls “you’re gonna die up there” before urinating all over the floor in William Friedkin’s infamous 1973 movie).
Stacy Keach gives his career-best performance as the central character, stripped of his usual moustache to reveal his real-life hare lip. Almost as good is Wilson as the tormented astronaut and Flanders as the medic with a vested interest in Kane’s controversial therapy. The film really is an actor’s dream, with some deliciously vulgar and anarchic dialogue.
The movie is also gorgeously shot and scored intelligently by Barry DeVorzon. Blatty directs each scene with great attention to detail and stuffs his script with telling references. The twists and philosophies are too numerous and intricate to savour fully from a single viewing, but each time you return to the film more of Blatty’s grand vision slots into place, and you slowly find yourself unravelling – and wanting to unravel – the deeper meaning of it all.
It may be heavy-going, demanding, bewildering even… but ultimately The Ninth Configuration is a fantastic cult classic which demands – and deserves – repeat viewings.
FMV Rating ****