Archive for Neville Brand

Easter/Passover Theatre: The Ninth Configuration (1980)

Posted in Culture, Film with tags , , , , on April 4, 2010 by christian

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.