Easter/Passover Theatre: The Ninth Configuration (1980)

Dracula is the gothic Jesus. At least that seems to be one of the bouncing metaphors in William Peter Blatty’s brilliant comedy horror surrealist existential religious allegory, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980), also released in one of many versions as TWINKLE, TWINKLE KILLER KANE (the title of his 1966 novel that he rewrote in 1978) through the years. A movie sui generis that truly defies cinematic antecedents, laced with Blatty’s catholic use of shocks and spirituality along with a film fan’s love of genre tropes. I’ve been reading (without spoilers) about this strange film for years and figured it would come to my viewing screen someday. Without conscious thought it ended up on my doorstep on Friday just in time for Easter and Passover. Or was it an accident?

The first screenplay surfaced in 1964 and although it had much interest, it remained unfilmed until the late 70’s, which is a long incubation period. Blatty put up half of the film’s 4 million dollar budget and somehow PepsiCo put up the other half with the proviso that it be shot in Budapest. The dark, fairy-tale like setting adds to the film’s mystique. It’s doubtful anybody but the author could have helmed this utterly idiosyncratic work, Luis Bunuel meets Mad Magazine. Without giving too much away (which I shan’t — you need to experience this firsthand), the surface story is about Colonel Hudson Kane, an army psychologist coming to oversee a castle tucked away in the misty hills of California where the patients are all troubled military men. His major problem child is Colonel Cutshaw, a NASA astronaut who flipped out before his space shot (“The man in the moon fucked my sister!”) and who seeks to believe in a world beyond evil. Kane puts into action his own style of therapy, giving into the men’s wild demands, from a flying jet-pack to Hamlet performed by dogs. All of this proto-Cuckoo’s Nest activity comprises the first two acts of the film, and it’s easily some of the most dazzling, pitch-perfect comedy that I’ve ever seen. Blatty is not only a master of Hawksian and Marxian repartee, he knows rhythm and composition, the 2.35:1 frame beautifully lensed by Gerry Fischer (Vilmos Zsigmond was to be the cinematographer). This is a great looking film, one of the last of the 70’s, with indelible images you’ll never forget.

The major strength of THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is probably the wonderful ensemble cast led by Stacy Keach and Scott Wilson, with incredible support from Ed Flanders, Jason Miller, Joe Spinell, Robert Loggia, Moses Gunn, and Steve Sandor among others. Stacy Keach is the tortured Dr. Kane, an intense part that Keach knows exactly how to play. It actually reminded me (perhaps too much) of his catatonic professor in END OF THE ROAD (1970). Still, Keach is terrific and just when you get used to his quiet nature, he unveils a powerhouse side in one of my favorite scenes. Although Michael Moriarty was originally cast as Cutshaw (and his form of jazz acting would have been perfect too), Scott Wilson stepped up to fill his astronaut boots. Wilson is one of the most unknown, regarded, chameleonic actors around; some might place his name but not his films, from his breakthrough role IN COLD BLOOD (1967) to THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) to THE LAST SAMURAI (2003). I don’t even recognize him. Yet he simply owns the role as the faithless NASA man, and due to Blatty’s machine-gun back-and-forth dialogue, he’s the most interesting, hilarious character.

Every actor here shines, and Ed Flanders (ST. ELSEWHERE) as the other resident psychiatrist delivers a stunning performance that truly deserved a Best Supporting Actor award (although the whole cast deserves its own ensemble Oscar); you can’t not be impressed by his sad, wistful face and voice. Jason Miller brings his own gift for wry comedy as the director of the doggie Hamlet, and it’s always a treat to see Joe Spinell as his wise-acre partner; Neville Brand (EATEN ALIVE) gets a terrific part as the Captain disgusted that these men are allowed to run around like…lunatics. For fanboy completists, even Tommy Atkins shows up in a sturdy role. And Richard Lynch as a biker! I’ve never seen a movie where so many actors pop up to steal each scenes from one another. You can see why the script has been adapted for the stage. Although THE NINTH CONFIGURATION never received wide audience attention, it still received three Golden Globe nominations — which Blatty says in the audio commentary makes him that year’s Pia Zadora. It’s an instant cult classic.

To say more would be a sin, and you must viddy this so we can talk about it later. The film was released under various titles with different version but is available in a “Director’s Cut” here. Be forewarned: the religious subtext and discussion might tweak some of your own spiritual views, but William Peter Blatty knows how to practice before he preaches. You don’t have to agree with his suppositions, and he certainly takes you on one hell of a ride. I mean, just when you think THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is only a satirical gothic Christ allegory, suddenly you’re watching the best choreographed, most cathartic biker scene that American International Pictures never made. Amen.

27 Responses to “Easter/Passover Theatre: The Ninth Configuration (1980)”

  1. You examined one of my all-time favorite films, Christian. Last year, I also did a brief review of it for blogger pattiinase and her Friday’s Forgotten Books series. IIRC, this picture has had five iterations, including the best one (IMO) that is the Director’s Cut. I’ve seen three of them altogether (at the theater on its initial release, the VHS version, and the DVD of the DC I own). My opinion of Stacy Keach really grew in 1980 with his pair of performances in this film and Walter Hill’s The Long Riders. Having read the ’78 novel when it came out, I really wondered who could do that Marine Corps character justice. I shouldn’t worried. Keach was something to behold as the dark legend of the piece, and director Blatty really got the best out of him, here. Great review of this unheralded and underrated film, Christian — and a great one for this day. Thanks very much for this.

    • christian Says:

      Thanks, you nailed it too in your review. I now have to read the novel, just to savor that witty dialogue in another format. It’s amazing you saw it when it came out on release — did anybody else you know appreciate it?

      • I think the L.A. Times wrote an intriguing review of it at the time and that’s what drew me to it. It didn’t draw many, initially. It has a much broader following now. Thanks, Christian.

  2. i’ve not seen this, but i’m actually a bit of a fan (perhaps the only one) of blatty’s written/directed ‘exorcist III’ (i’m a sucker for george c. scott, he’s the bees knees)

    • christian Says:

      I’ve still never seen EXORCIST III – blasphemy! But I will now that I recognize Blatty as a real directorial force. And I too love Scott in anything.

      • I’ll very much agree with Leah. And like TNC, Exorcist III has a much broader following now. It’s based upon the only official novel sequel by the author to The Exorcist (The Ninth Configuration being his unofficial sequel), Legion. Watch the film, then read the novel to see the changes the studio forced upon Blatty’s adaptation of the film. Still, the film is quite good, plus it contains one of the best suspense-building sequences I know of that packs a real surprise for the viewer (Leah, I sure, knows the one I refer to). You’ll also recognize more than a few TNC cast members in Exorcist III, as well. When you catch it, let us know what you think. Thanks.

        • leopard, yay, another ‘III’ fan



          the brilliant scissors scene, is that what you mean? if so it’s a doozy


          also, dourif is bonza as gemini

          such a troubled production, but the film achieves some genuine creeps and atmosphere and really not a great deal of gore, more an example of effective psychological horror. typical that the ‘act’ suggested in the title forced into the film is one of its weakest aspects, IMHO

  3. man, you really have the talent to furstrate me. i need to see this. sounds like a mystical catch 22 (with a barroom fight scene). man, i so need this. ordering it NOW (what about the novel ? did you read it ?)

  4. oooh just found it (thank you the internet)

  5. THE FUTURIST! saw this in a THEATER on the big screen but it was (supposedly) cut by the studio to a 90 min length or so. THE FUTURIST! did not like it or understand it. He heard so much about the full length material and felt he was missing something and finally rented it from NetFlix years later and watched again … he still did not enjoy it. It just seems hokey and over acted. But different tastes are what films are all about.

  6. I was also impressed by the bar fight, but my (admittedly hazy) recollection of the rest of the film is of a bunch of asylum inmates imitating Groucho Marx as they discuss the nature of God. But I know that the film is revered in some circles, and maybe I should give it another look.

    Who here was raised Catholic? Maybe it helps. Then again, I think you can be an atheist and still find THE EXORCIST terrifying, particularly if you’ve ever known anyone who suffered from manic depression or schizophrenia.

    • christian Says:

      There is a lot of Groucho there but with bad language and existential themes.

      I wasn’t raised with any religion but THE EXORCIST is frightening for all sorts of reasons, religious and metaphyisical.

  7. i’m not even remotely catholic but i did go to a catholic school for a couple of years. let me tell you, nuns can be MEAN :-{ (<< that's me quivering in terror at the thought of the nuns with their knuckle-smashing rulers and their 9.5 sphincter-facter clenched asses. apparently being 'married to god' isn't a lot of laughs)

  8. GOT IT !!! woooot (anybody interested in some shady deal ?)

  9. frank b Says:

    I’m not even gonna try to figure out what Christian’s little slip means, but there’s potentially a new wrinkle on the nunsploitation genre in there somewhere. That or a Martin Lawrence movie.

  10. […] and thoughtful review during that summer, and another blogger friend, christian, wrote an equally first-rate review of its film adaptation for his Easter/Passover post last year. For me, it remains a remarkable and strangely reflective […]

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