The Ninth Configuration

Dir: William Peter Blatty, 1980. Starring: Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders. Cult.
The Ninth Configuration
The small list of novelists turned movie directors would include Maya Angelou helming Down in the Delta, Stephen King doing Maximum Overdrive, Thomas McGuane's Ninety-Two in the Shade, Michael Crichton directing half a dozen flicks (including Westworld and Coma), and Paul Auster doing a couple as well. Dalton Trumbo’s adapted his own anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, but by then he was known more as a screenwriter than a novelist. The most famously embarrassing film might be Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, while the strangest might be by William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, who also wrote the screenplay (and was credited as a producer on the mega hit). For his directing debut seven years later he would adapt his bizarre, surreal, novel “Twinkle, Twinkle, 'Killer' Kane,” later retitled The Ninth Configuration. The movie was labeled brilliant by a few and a flop by most. While it’s certainty interesting, wildly ambitious and definitely uncommercial, if nothing else, it has the wildest bar room brawl fight scene in movie history, and that makes the whole experience worth the price of admission.

The Ninth Configuration is kind of a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and MASH (with a little King Of Hearts, Catch 22 and The Ruling Class mixed in). It takes place in a military mental hospital - actually an old castle deep in the mountains of the pacific Northwest - which houses a group of eccentric oddball patients, including an insane astronaut, Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) and other assorted movie quoting, costume wearing, cut-ups (Moses Gunn, Robert Loggia, George DiCenzo and Jason Miller who played Father Karras in The Exorcist). Miller himself was a successful playwright with That Championship Season and he also directed its film version. A new doctor, the ultra intense Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach) arrives to check on the progress of Dr. Fell (Ed Flanders). Through the course of events it becomes clear that Kane is maybe just as crazy as the crazies (and not a Patch Adams kinda fun crazy, relating to his patients with a clown nose, but a deeply violent and dangerous crazy). The film is making a statement about the meaning of insanity. Isn’t war itself more insane than reality (or something like that)? And if that’s not enough there are also religious overtones about the meaning of good and evil. OK, SPOILER ALERT for anyone who can’t see it coming, but yes, we eventually find out that Kane is there for treatment, he is not a doctor but a bad ass psycho marine, and Fell is actually his brother treating him. Reviewing the plot is almost as tedious as the movie itself; what matters is that great bar room scene.

After Cutshaw learns that Kane, the doctor making progress treating him, is actually insane, he escapes and heads straight for the local biker bar. You have to wonder where in Blatty’s Hollywood Central Casting imagination did he come up with this place: bad pop-disco-lite music blares while the big feather-haired bikers dance with each other (there’s a very bisexual edge to them). Spotting the drunk Cutshaw, the jean-vest wearing biker leader, Richard (the great B character actor Richard Lynch looking a lot like Rutger Hauer), has a bet with his mascara sporting muscle goon Stanley (Steve Sandor who played similar creeps on dozens of TV shows in the '70s) whether Cutshaw actually is a famous astronaut. Realizing he is, they give him a good working over and beating until Kane comes to rescue him. The gang messes with the passive Kane, making him say that Marines suck, and then Stanley does the splits and makes Kane lick beer off the floor. When Richard starts to sexually assault Cutshaw, the real “Killer Kane,” who we’ve heard so much about, comes out and he goes nuts, killing all of the bikers who don’t flee without mercy, including the women. Back in the hospital Kane dies in the crucifix position and Cutshaw says “he gave his life for me” (he’s a Christ figure, get it?), all leading to Cutshaw being cured!

Before the success of The Exorcist Blatty started writing the original work that would become “Twinkle, Twinkle, 'Killer' Kane,” and that groovy '60s time stamp shows. It often unfortunately has a wacked-out, druggy, Terry Southern feel and by 1980 the anti-Vietnam War sentiment already feels stale. I’m happy for the movie that there is a Ninth Configuration cult out there who thinks the film is a masterpiece (it got some Golden Globe award nominations, even winning for Blatty’s screenplay). It’s so odd and deranged and nutty. I want to love it too, and there is something masterful about it, but overall it just doesn’t connect for me. Even the bar scene that I hyped so much, rewatching it now, it’s not as good as I remember. As a teenager seeing The Ninth Configuration on cable the scene blew my mind and has stayed with me, but since with Oldboy and Kill Bill and so many great fight scenes, it now looks a little rushed and even corny.

Since The Ninth Configuration experience Blatty has written tons more books and in ’80 took his only other turn directing, the almost respectable Exorcist III (it was much better than John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic). Blatty will always be remembered for his fascination with the conflict between good and evil, and The Ninth Configuration seems to touch on that as well. If The Exorcist is his Citizen Kane, then maybe The Ninth Configuration is his The Magnificent Ambersons, a work that only a small group seem to appreciate, until a half century later when it finally gets its due.
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 11, 2012 5:14pm
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