Shout! Factory Prediction #2: The Ninth Configuration, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Ninth Configuration
Director: William Peter Blatty
Cast: Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders, Neville Brand, George DiCenzo, Moses Gunn, Robert Loggia, Joe Spinell, Alejandro Rey, Tom Atkins
Synopsis: Strange things are afoot at a remote castle that has converted into a mental asylum for military personnel. Newly-appointed psychiatrist Colonel Kane (Keach) arrives and is mentored by the kindly and patient Doctor Fell (Flanders). Among the many patients, Kane and Fell pay special attention to former astronaut Billy Cutshaw (Wilson), who suffered a complete mental breakdown while preparing for launch to the moon. Cutshaw is having a crisis of faith, Colonel Kane might not be who he claims to be, and Fell seems to know something the other patients do not.
Critique: The Ninth Configuration is a crazy movie, and not solely because of its setting of a mental institution. The style and hypnotic fragments of sheer lunacy, humor, and existential quandaries make this truly unique film something that needs to be seen to be believed.
As a director, William Peter Blatty is a particular case because he seems to operate on pure instinct. His aesthetic approach in both this and Exorcist III (and the cobbled edit of Blatty’s original cut of the film Legion) is erratically engrossing, eschewing convention and tonal formalism in lieu of a movie that is, in the best sense of the word, indecipherable in terms of genre and pacing. Predominantly, this could be categorized as a horror/thriller, but The Ninth Configuration is a very heady exploration of the tumultuous period around the Vietnam war, the residual fallout of PTSD, existential crises, and the all around complex nature of existence. The narrative juggles a multifaceted story without relegating any of the content to second-tier status; rightfully so, as they’re all richly thought out and immersive.
There’s a palatable sense of humor, veering on the absurdist side of philosophical dismay, but never does it steer toward disparaging its characters. Amid the emotionally fraught, there’s malingerers and the staff who seem to be on the tipping point of losing their sanity by proxy.
The architectural expressionism of the castle steeped in shrouds of fog evokes the kind of classical horror associated with gothic mysticism. Interiors are teeming with baroque Catholic symbology against the sometimes-hilarious antics of the personnel and patients. Macabre imagery fills the screen throughout; statues, stained glass and figurines looms large, which eerily speaks for itself in creating an atmosphere of dread.
Highlights include Robert Loggia dancing in blackface to Al Jolson, DiCenzo dressed as a nun, Colonel Fell’s pants being repeatedly stolen, Cutshaw attending church dressed in a red bow, referring to God as “foot” throughout. I think The Ninth Configuration would get Bunuel’s seal of approval. The military garb will push our referential leanings toward MASH (Altman or series), but the undercurrent of dread makes this cross-cutting diffusion accentuate both the horror and bizarre humor in the film.
The Ninth Configuration has its path in leading us down this labyrinthine puzzle of politics religion, and psychology and the indicative trigger scene that rev’s the film into its jarring finale. The revelatory barfight, with the grit and kinetic suspense comparable to John Boorman, and stylistic panache of Scorsese; it’s intense and scary.
William Peter Blatty doesn’t have an emblematic genre or tribe of indication, which is one of the reasons why his decisions as a director feel all the pure. They don’t belong to “the so-and-so-new-wave” or some stylistic movement, which is why this idiosyncratic movie is one to see.
Among the ensemble cast (Stacy Keach, Robert Loggia, Ed Flanders, Tom Atkins) it’s Scott Wilson’s magnetic performance as Cutshaw that steals the show. Keach’s imposing (and ultimately unhinged) presence with Wilson’s charged rants about the nature of God have an emotional charge to them that edges out the sometimes confusing tone of the film.
Why it Should Go into Production: Exorcist III had undergone something of a renaissance over the past few years, but a Scream Factory release of author William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III and the director’s cut of Legion has something to do with said renaissance and with only one other directing credit being The Ninth Configuration who’s to say that in getting the rights to Exorcist III they didn’t get both? The film in question does have a Blu-ray release, but it seems to be limited in supply. The cult building around The Ninth Configuration merits a release from any major home video distributor, some might even argue for a Criterion release, but I think this would be best represented by the fine folks at Shout! Factory.
I might be misreading something you actually intended to refer to Exorcist III, but I think Ninth Configuration is much more of a comedy than a horror/thriller. To the extent it’s not a comedy, it’s mostly a drama about the question of God’s existence.
The Ninth Configuration definitely has some truly funny moments but I can’t really make a determination as to what genre it belongs to and I think that’s one of the films many strong suits. When we take that turn (spoilers) in the films later section with the Vietnam flashbacks there’s some pretty horrifying imagery, scary in a literal sense, as well as conveying a sense of dread. Blatty’s two movies are truly magnificent and there are countless ways to dissect The Ninth Configuration which is why I love it so much!