Monday, December 13, 2021

#2,676. The Ninth Configuration (1980)


There’s a scene in 1973’s The Exorcist where Reagan (Linda Blair), in the early stages of her possession, interrupts a party being thrown by her mother (Ellen Burstyn). Reagan approaches one of the guests, an astronaut scheduled to be launched into space, and says to him “You’re gonna die up there”. As if to drive her point across, young Reagan then urinates in front of everyone before being shuttled away by her concerned mother.

That astronaut, Captain Billy Cutshaw, is the lead character in 1980’s The Ninth Configuration.

Written and directed by William Peter Blatty (who wrote The Exorcist as well as the novel Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, which formed the basis for this movie), The Ninth Configuration is the second in what’s become known as the author’s “Faith Trilogy” (which concluded with 1990’s The Exorcist III).

In other words, forget the dismal Exorcist II: The Heretic; The Ninth Configuration is the true middle chapter: the sequel to The Exorcist as well as the prequel to The Exorcist III.

Though unlike the two movies that bookend it, this 1980 entry is not a horror film. In fact, it’s everything but; The Ninth Configuration features dark comedy, an intriguing mystery, a stirring debate on the existence of God, some trippy dream sequences, and a final 20 minutes that are as shocking as they are dramatic.

Set sometime during the Vietnam War, The Ninth Configuration takes us to a remote castle in the Pacific Northwest, where soldiers who have suffered mental breakdowns as a result of the conflict are being treated. Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), a psychiatrist, has just been assigned to the facility, sent there to determine which of the inmates might be faking mental illness, and which are truly sick.

Kane takes a special interest in the only patient who did not serve in Vietnam: Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), an astronaut who, during the final countdown for his journey into space, abandoned the mission and suffered a complete psychological breakdown.

With the help of the institution’s medical officer, Col. Richard Fell (Ed Flanders), Kane does his best to reach the patients under his care, though it’s clear from the outset that Kane is battling a few demons of his own, and may be just as disturbed as any of the facility’s other residents.

The first two-thirds of The Ninth Configuration play like a comedy, with each member of the film’s all-star cast chipping in to get some laughs. Jason Miller (Father Karras in The Exorcist) plays Lt. Frankie Reno, who with the help of Lt. Spinell (Joe Spinell), is trying to stage an all-canine version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Maj. Nammack (Moses Gunn) believes he’s Superman, while Lt. Bennish (Robert Loggia) is convinced he’s no longer on earth; he is being held captive by aliens on Venus. Also along for the ride are the institution’s guards and caretakers; Neville Brand is the ornery Major Groper and Tom Atkins appears in a few scenes as Sgt. Krebs.

The real standouts, though, are Stacy Keach as the subdued Kane, whose troubling dreams (the most bizarre of which is set on the moon) suggest he himself has experienced severe mental trauma, and Scott Wilson (who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance) as the out-of-control Cutshaw, the astronaut who argues bitterly with Kane over the existence of God. Cutshaw is convinced God does not exist, and evil rules the world, whereas Kane contends that there is also good to be found among their fellow man, which in itself suggests there is indeed a God. While these debates are occasionally humorous (Cutshaw asks Kane to take him to a Catholic Mass, for which the astronaut dons a schoolboy’s uniform), they also form the nucleus of the film, giving insight into each man’s psyche and what it is that’s troubling them.

In fact, the mystery surrounding Kane’s trauma and what caused it is just as intriguing as the film’s theological diatribes, and while I was able to figure out this mystery well before the big revelation, Keach’s understated performance is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering when his character will finally snap.

Despite resting comfortably outside the horror genre, The Ninth Configuration definitely feels like a spiritual sequel to William Friedkin’s award-winning 1973 film, which I consider one of the most frightening movies I have ever seen. The Ninth Configuration may not scare you like The Exorcist or even The Exorcist III, but it will make you laugh, make you think, and, ultimately, move you in ways you did not expect.

The Ninth Configuration is not a genre film because it defies genre; like its characters, the movie has many personalities, all of which blend together brilliantly to create a motion picture unlike any I have experienced before.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

1 comment:

Eric Gilliland said...

I adore this film, it definitely defies genre at every turn. Also highly recommend the novel.