Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Ninth Configuration (1980)

With The Last Exorcism getting its release in theatres this weekend, I thought it only appropriate to pay tribute to a highly underrated film from the man who originally made exorcisms popular. William Peter Blatty was the author of the best-selling novel, The Exorcist, which needless to say, was turned into one of the most popular and successful horror films of all time. Before that, Blatty was a very successful novelist who also did a lot of work as a screenwriter (including the first Pink Panther sequel, A Shot in the Dark), but since The Exorcist, his name has only been attached to two films. He stepped behind the camera to his direct his novel, “Legion”, which was released as The Exorcist III: Legion… even though the original novel didn’t actually contain any exorcism, which meant the studio forced Blatty to shoehorn a brand-new exorcist character into the plot! That experience pretty much soured Blatty on Hollywood for good, which is a shame, since his other directorial effort, The Ninth Configuration, showed that he had great talents as a filmmaker. The Ninth Configuration is Blatty’s own adaptation of his novel, “Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane”, and this film is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It cannot be categorized into one particular genre and is certainly an acquired taste, so it really isn’t too surprising that the film wasn’t a commercial success and is highly underrated. However, The Ninth Configuration does have a loyal cult following and, let’s face it, it’s impossible not be intrigued by a movie with a poster that features Jesus nailed to a crucifix on the Moon!

The setting of this movie is a pretty ingenious one as it takes place in an old gothic castle that’s being used as an experimental asylum for soldiers who have gone insane. Since the story takes place during the Vietnam War, there is suspicion that most of the soldiers in the asylum are just faking their insanity in order to get out of combat duty. The most fascinating of these characters is a former astronaut named Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), who was being sent on a voyage to the Moon, but had a complete mental breakdown and aborted the mission at the last second. In a clever bit of continuity, the Cutshaw character actually made a very brief appearance in The Exorcist. Even though it’s never explicitly stated in either film, Blatty has confirmed that Cutshaw is the astronaut in the party scene to whom Reagan says “You’re going to die up there,” before urinating on the rug. The implication is that this encounter with a demonically possessed girl caused Cutshaw to question his belief in God and become terrified that he was going to die alone in space, which lead to his breakdown. A Marine psychiatrist named Kane (Stacy Keach) soon arrives at the asylum and establishes himself as someone who is willing to listen to anything the soldiers have to say, no matter how crazy they may be. This scenario can almost be described as “One Flew Who Over the Cuckoo’s Nest turned up to eleven” as the asylum contains one of the most wacky groups of oddball characters ever assembled for a film . The antics of these patients are often hysterically funny and the most hilarious character is probably Lt. Reno (Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in The Exorcist), who has a passon for putting on productions of Shakespeare with dogs!

The first half of The Ninth Configuration is largely presented in the style of a bizarre screwball comedy and serves mainly as a showcase for each of the patients to display their nuttiness. Quite frankly, a lot of these scenes don’t really have much bearing on the narrative as once the fílm’s second half rolls around, as the plot focuses primarily on the relationship between Kane and Cutshaw and most of the other patients pretty much just disappear into the background. However, these early scenes are very well-acted and written with such colourful and clever dialogue that they’re very entertaining to sit through. Blatty is a very gifted dialogue writer and a lot of people forget that The Exorcist even contained its fair share of hilariously colourful throwaway lines (“There seems to be an alien pubic hair in my gin!”). Some of the throwaway lines in this film may seem pretty random (“The man in the Moon tried to fuck my sister!”), but they still make you laugh. The Ninth Configuration may not seem very similar to The Exorcist, but in many ways, they cover the same theological themes about good and evil and the existence of God and the Devil. The film addresses such issues as sacrifice, suffering and faith and could have easily slipped into pretentiousness, but by presenting the first half of the story as a comic farce, Blatty does keep the audience engaged. However, the second half of the film eventually enters much darker territory as it becomes apparent than Kane may actually be crazier than any of his patients. After he decides that performing a re-enactment of The Great Escape might be therapeutic for the patients, a different side of him starts to emerge.

There are no A-list stars in this film, but it does it contain a terrific cast of character actors, many of whom are given the opportunity to deliver some of the best performances of their respective careers. However, it’s Stacy Keach’s work in the lead role that stands out the most, especially on repeat viewings. While all the other performers are allowed to act up a storm in very flamboyant, showy roles and are given the most juicy lines, Keach is assigned the seemingly thankless, subdued role of simply listening and responding to them with minimal dialogue. However, upon learning the full backstory of Kane’s character, it’s apparent how brilliantly subtle Keach’s performance is, as he gradually has to give off the impression that there’s something really off about him. As Kane and Cutshaw build up a relationship where they have a lot of philosophical conversations about the nature of good and evil, it seems that the story is in danger of becoming ponderous, so it comes as somewhat of a surprise when the movie’s big setpiece turns out to be a bar fight! Out of all the many bar fights that have appeared in films, I’d say this one is probably the all-time greatest. After totally losing his faith in everything, Cutshaw wanders into a bar filled with sadistic bikers and it is up to Kane to save him. The whole sequence lasts between 10-15 minutes and almost reminds me of the long tavern sequence in Inglourious Basterds as it slowly builds up tension to a point where you just know something bad’s gonna happen! Very rarely has one ever wanted to see bad guys get their just desserts more than the bikers in this scene, and while I’d recommend seeing the film and watching this whole sequence from beginning to end, here’s a clip that showcases the climactic explosion of violence.

If you were to read the last 10 minutes of The Ninth Configuration on paper, you would probably think it’s a bunch of pretentious nonsense, but Blatty somehow manages to make the film’s denouement surprisingly touching. The last moment of the film may also seem ridiculous and heavy-handed, but since Blatty claims it’s based on something that really happened to him, I can give him the benefit of the doubt. Quite honestly, after my first viewing of The Ninth Configuration, I really wasn’t sure what to make of the film. I knew that I enjoyed the performances, the dialogue and the comedic elements and thought that the bar fight sequence was terrific, but I didn’t know what to think about the film as a whole. However, this is definitely one case where a film’s true greatness really starts to shine through on multiple viewings. Once you know all the plot’s twists and turns and understand the themes that Blatty is trying to convey, you look at the whole thing in a different light and realize what an intelligent, unique and original piece of work this is. That said, The Ninth Configuration is definitely not something that will not appeal to every viewer, so this is probably always destined to be an underrated gem. Blatty walks a fine line between thought-provoking and pretentious and while I think he pulls it off, some may find the film to be a ponderous experience. However, those with an open mind and an appreciation for something different should definitely give it a look and, let’s face it, this may be your only chance to ever someone attempt a performance of Hamlet with dogs!

This entry was posted in Movies, Robin's Underrated Gems. Bookmark the permalink.