Scary, strange, surreal, and yet also very funny at times, the offbeat drama/thriller The Ninth Configuration marked the directorial debut of William Peter Blatty, the Oscar-winning novelist and screenwriter of The Exorcist (1973). Blending themes of madness and militarism with a narrative setup suitable for some old-fashioned haunted-house shocker, Blatty adapted the movie from his 1978 novel of the same name, which was in turn extrapolated from one of his earlier books, the 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane! Employing an exceptional group of actors, some of whom reconvened for Blatty’s only other directorial endeavor—the underrated sequel The Exorcist III (1990)—The Ninth Configuration uses humor and terror to weave a bizarre tapestry of existentialism, spirituality, and violence. Superficially, it’s about psychiatry, space travel, and Vietnam, and there’s even room for a bar brawl. The Ninth Configuration doesn’t always work, because some scenes are confusing, and because parsing what the whole thing means once it’s over is challenging. Nonetheless, this is a unique piece of work from a wildly creative individual unafraid to tackle the heaviest of subject matter.
Set in the Pacific Northeast, the picture takes place in a castle that the U.S. government has repurposed as an asylum. (If you’re already have trouble buying that outlandish notion, this movie is not for you.) One stormy night, a fierce-looking Marine officer named Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach) arrives to join the psychiatric staff at the facility. He encounters a spectrum of bizarre patients. Major Namimak (Moses Gunn) dresses like Superman and believes he has extraordinary powers. Lieutenant Reno (Jason Miller) fancies himself a theater director as he oversees rehearsals for a production of Hamlet featuring dogs instead of humans. The sensitive Captain Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) trained to be an astronaut until he had a nervous breakdown just before takeoff for his moon shot. And so on.
In its wildest scenes, The Ninth Configuration features the tightly wound Kane walking through the corridors of the castle with absurd behavior happening all around him, suggesting the idea of an emotionally vulnerable individual grasping for pieces of sanity in a world gone mad. The man responsible for all of the chaos is Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders), the facility’s chief administrator, who believes letting patients act out fantasies helps the healing process. Another nuance? Fell and Kane are tasked with determining which patients are genuinely ill and which are faking to avoid military service. Yet the most explosive X factor in this fraught environment is Kane, whose frightening capacity for rage has surprising connections to an ugly battlefield incident in the past.
Working with the great British cinematographer Gerry Fisher, whose images mesh intimacy with grandiosity in clever ways, Blatty generates a one-of-a-kind feel. Since anything can happen, owing to the lunatics-running-the-asylum milieu, The Ninth Configuration is consistently surprising even though it’s rarely believable—or, to be more precise, even though it’s rarely believable in terms of logic. On an emotional level, the movie connects big-time, especially because the acting is so robust. Keach’s signature intensity has terrifying power. Wilson reveals heartbreaking vulnerability. Flanders, Gunn, Miller, Neville Brand, Robert Loggia, Joe Spinell, and others populate the hospital with wounded souls distinguished by amusing eccentricities and/or poignant psychological wounds. Does it all spin out of control toward the end? Somewhat. But does Blatty create dozens of unique moments that radiate beauty and pain and wonderment along the way? Absolutely.
FYI, the picture was released into theaters twice, once as The Ninth Configuration and once as Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane. Although it flopped both times, subsequent exhibition on home video and television has earned the picture well-deserved status as a minor cult classic.
The Ninth Configuration: GROOVY