Starring- Stacey Keach, Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders, Jason Miller, Robert Loggia, Moses Gunn
Out Now on UK DVD & Blu-Ray from Second Sight
William Peter Blatty will most notably be known for his novel of THE EXORCIST and also for the screenplay of the film. Though despite numerous screenwriting credits, Blatty has rarely dealt directly with cinema and has only made two films, including the superb and underrated EXORCIST 3 and before that, this film, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION. Yet each of his foray’s into cinema, along with the original screenplay for the EXORCIST, EXORCIST 3 (based on his own novel LEGION) and CONFIGURATION deal with the directors primarily Christian themes of good and evil, the questioning of faith and how can such bad things happen in a world to the innocent and good and to those who believe in God and how his characters deal with these contradictions.
THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is one such complex example and having not seen it for a long time after first watching it on Channel Four in a director approved version (broadcast late 90’s/early 00’s maybe?), it remains a baffling, deliberately disjointed exercise that on this viewing has cleared up a lot more than the first watch yet still confuses and confounds.
The film is set in a castle, stylised with gargoyles and sculptures of menacing, yet awesome looking hooded figures. This castle is owned by the U.S. military who have made it a makeshift home for mentally disturbed soldiers and those of military command. On arrival to this asylum is Colonel Kane (Keach) who has been assigned to take over treatment of the patients. He meets Colonel Fell (Flanders) who helps him get used to the patients one of whom is Reno (Miller) who is trying to stage a play of the works of Shakespeare with a cast of dogs. But its former astronaut Cutshaw (Wilson) who Kane takes an interest in. He has been confined into this castle since he was dragged form the capsule of a failed Moon launch suffering an apparent mental breakdown.
Cutshaw engages Kane with questions on the existence of god and the idea of self sacrifice for the benefit of others. Kane seems to approach his patients with an apparent calmness indulging their every mean no matter how daft. Though it starts to become unclear as to whether Kane has some apparent motive behind his supposed therapy or whether he has suffered from traumas himself that he wants to forget.
Admittedly it’s hard to pinpoint what type of film THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is. A comedy. A serious drama focusing on the effects of war and duty on soldiers. Or is it a psychological thriller with theological overtones. The fact that it is hard to categorise makes the film unique in it’s own way and also frustrating in another. After seeing this a long time ago I couldn’t quite fathom what I saw and in some respects didn’t like it. Maybe I was expecting another EXORCIST style horror and my expectations where of course not met and that could just be a nice reflection on the way that as viewers/fans we expect the creator of a well known possession horror film to come up with another possession horror film and to follow through with more of the same and not confuse us with something they might want to try and to experiment with.
Though on this viewing I came away with more of an appreciation for the film. Even if that appreciation is still met with confusion. Whilst THE EXORCIST detailed a battle between good and evil over the soul of a teenage girl and the testing of faith of a catholic priest, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION debates the inherit belief in god and whether he exists in a world that allows such inhumane acts to occur and the idea of beneficial self sacrifice. In this case the debate is done between a former astronaut and a Colonel who seems to be hiding some past trauma from his previous calls of duty. Blatty handles this material well amidst the madness and chaos of the asylum with Miller auditioning dogs for roles in his Shakespeare production, Moses Gunn dressed as a black superman and Robert Loggia doing a karaoke rendition of Al Jolson in black face.
To say that the film doesn’t have a dark twisted sense of humour would be an understatement, after all we are in the midst of a group of nut jobs, to use the crude phrase. Though its these twists and turns throughout that somehow make the film uneven often at times hard to fathom especially if you are viewing this for the first time. As often as some segments are bizarre and funny we then enter into some scenes that are intense and dark. Most notably in the bar room scene where Kane and Cutshaw encounter a biker gang. It’s both at times slightly absurd in it’s depiction of the gang and intense in building up to an inevitable violent crescendo. Performance wise it’s certainly Keach and Wilson who are both excellent in their respective roles. Keach especially, who seems both world weary and drained from his time in the military and eventually conveying the build up of anger that soon reveals his character’s true nature.
It’s a surprise to hear that he was a last minute replacement after previous star Nicol Williamson was fired after he threw a phone through a hotel window in the films location in Budapest. The supporting players seem to chew the scenery in many respects which when conveying patients in an asylum is probably good thing, especially Miller who is fantastic especially when berating dogs he auditions for his play. Cult film fans should also keep an eye out for an appearance from MANIAC star Joe Spinell who plays Miller’s “theatrical” assistant a role which wasn’t written in but somehow Spinell convinced Blatty to cast him. Visually the film is splendid with it’s castle setting being a striking superb setting and as one of the characters states in the film, with the presence of the gargoyles, seems to be the most unlikeliest place to treat the mentally ill. It also features some striking scenes most notably the superb image of a crucified figure of Jesus on the moon. A lunar crucifixion that is both startling, unusual and outlandish mirroring the state of most of the character’s in the film.
Blatty has said of his film as being the true sequel to THE EXORCIST, with EXORCIST 3 or as it was originally meant to be called LEGION, being a conclusion of a trilogy of films dealing with theological issues. Raised a Jesuit, Blatty is serious in his approach to debating the existence of a greater higher power and in many respects even those of a non belief position, can admire the man’s approach as he tackles themes with an intelligent discourse. Though most of all THE NINTH CONFIGURATION as much as it is confusing often at times frustrating is unique, one of a kind in a way, a film that without the association of the author and screenwriter of one of the most successful horror movies of all time would probably have never been green lit for production.
Even now the film stands out as an original mish-mash of theological debate, twisted surreal humour and maddening intense visuals orchestrated by someone who doesn’t care for the demands of a straightforward narrative and after 35 years the film still retains a cult following and with this new Blu Ray release from Second Sight will no doubt confront and confuse a new generation.
– English Subtitles for The Hard of Hearing
– Audio Commentary by Writer/ Director William Peter Blatty
– ‘The Writer/ Producer/ Director’ – Interview With William Peter Blatty
– ‘Confessions of Kane’ – Interview With Actor Stacy Keach – ‘The Debrief Of Sgt. Christian’ – Interview With Actor Stephen Powers
– ‘Designing The Configuration’ Interviews With Production Designer William Malley and Art Director J. Dennis Washington
– ‘Killer On My Mind’ – Interview With Soundtrack Composer Barry De Vorzon
– ‘The Party Behind The Curtain’ – Interviews With Actors Tom Atkins, Jason Miller, Richard Lynch and William Peter Blatty
– Mark Kermode Introduction Featurette
– Deleted Scenes and Outtakes