The Ninth Configuration (1980)

Also known as:
Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane

All I can say is, my God. This is one Hell of a film. It must be the role of a lifetime for Stacy Keach, and it's such a pity that William Peter Blatty hasn't directed more than two films, the other being the superb Exorcist III: Legion. If these two films are any indication, the man could have been a major talent in cinema. Still, with the Ninth Configuration readily available on DVD we can all get what we will out of it, at our leisure. Essentially unquantifiable as far as genre goes, you may find yourself bored, confused, perplexed, stunned and moved. There certainly aren't many films like it out there. Apparently Blatty at one point called it the true sequel to The Exorcist, which is a concept I wrestle with to a large extent, but let's take a look at the film and try to get our heads around it.

In a huge European castle transplanted somewhere into a rainswept, fog-shrouded America, Vietnam veterans who have lost their minds or who have battle-trauma are being treated in an experimental facility. These men behave in various strange ways. One of them - played by Blatty himself - pretends to be a doctor, some sing ridiculous songs, one attempts to stage Shakespeare's Hamlet with dogs as actors. One inmate thinks he is trapped on Venus with shape-shifting aliens in charge. Another attacks walls with a hammer to teach the molecules a lesson for not letting him pass through them untouched... and let's not forget Maniac mainstay Joe Spinell playing a loony character called, appropriately enough, Spinell.

Into this maelstrom of insanity comes Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), a quiet army psychiatrist who has come to take charge of the place. He meets Colonel Richard Fell (Ed Flanders), who seems to have his pants stolen most of the time by inmates. Kane makes his presence felt almost immediately, making himself available to the patients at all times, and allowing them to act out their every whim. Kane's most difficult patient is Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), an astronaut who refused to fly to the moon at the last second, having a complete nervous breakdown instead. As Kane begins to make progress with quite a few of the patients, Cutshaw remains belligerent, tearing up Kane's office, challenging him to prove in the existence of God and indeed any notion of goodness in man. Kane replies that the very presence of life on earth, which required such a specific set of conditions and molecules in the scientific "ninth configuration", must imply some higher force or purpose. As far as goodness goes, well, any act of sacrifice will do. Cutshaw demands an example from history other than Christ, but Kane can't think of one. Kane looks at one of Cutshaw's medals and Cutshaw flings it disdainfully at him.

Later we see that Kane has dreams from Vietnam, frightening vignettes of death that he somehow absorbed from another man by being told them. Fell discovers that this man was Kane's brother, Vincent "Killer" Kane, a marine who savagely killed dozens in Vietnam. Still, Kane says that his brother is now dead. Fell walks out but begins crying once out of Kane's sight. Cutshaw convinces Kane to take him to a church service, but once there behaves badly and embarrases Kane. Staring at an altar boy, Kane briefly sees a Vietnamese youth, then shakes off the vision. Back at the castle, Cutshaw thanks Kane, and asks him to send him some sort of sign of proof of an afterlife, if he dies first. Kane promises that he'll try his best. The inmates stage a version of "the great escape" with the staff dressed as the Nazis. At one point Kane gives an enraged plea for goodness and understanding to one of his more callous staff members, all the while dressed in full Nazi regalia, one of the more stunning moments in the film.

Kane goes to meet a new patient. The new guy immediately recognizes him as "Killer" Kane, and the Colonel experiences a waking flashback to Vietnam. In the vision, the new patient, as a soldier, discovers Kane kneeling on the ground and sobbing that he cut a boy's head off with a wire, but the boy "kept on talking". The soldier tries to get Kane to leave, and sees he's holding a severed head in his hands. Kane screams, and collapses unconscious in the real world.

Fell explains to the other staff that the Colonel really is "Killer" Kane, and had suffered a complete breakdown in Vietnam. When Fell was sent back to America from Vietnam, Kane received the dispatch accidentally, as Fell is actually Hudson Kane, Vincent's brother. Killer Kane made himself believe that he was really his psychiatrist brother to flee from the horror of what he had done. He returned to America subconsciously hoping to heal people to make up for his "murders". In order to help Vincent, the Army psychiatric staff maintained the ruse and sent him to Hudson's castle with the fake scenario of being the new head psychiatrist. In truth Hudson was in charge all along. When Kane awakens he remembers nothing of what happened moments ago.

When Cutshaw seizes the moment to escape the castle and visit a bar, a gang of Hell's angels recognizes him as the Astronaut who wouldn't fly and begin pummelling him. A waitress phones Kane, who arrives at the bar to take him home. The gang begin tormenting Kane as well, and in order for them to be allowed to leave, the Bikers force Kane to make comments against the marines. As Kane struggles wih each demand and brutalization, the gang attack Cutshaw again. Kane finally goes berserk and with only his hands as weapons, kills every biker in the room in a graphic scene of bloody violence.

Back at the castle, Cutshaw visits Kane, who has draped himself in a blanket. Kane seems drugged, or as if in a dream, and mutters about God and goodness, that "shock therapy" is now necessary to help Cutshaw, and that time is nearly up. He asks Cutshaw again why he won't fly to the moon. Cutshaw emotionally explains that space seemed so cold and empty that if God doesn't exist, then he could have died up there utterly, completely alone. The concept terrified him and he couldn't go through with it. Kane passes out. Cutshaw leaves, but we see Kane's hand come out from under the blanket, dripping blood and dropping a knife. Cutshaw notices a patch of blood on his foot and races back - but is it too late for Killer Kane, who is trying to make the ultimate sacrifice to show Cutshaw the capacity for Godliness and goodness within all of us?

You'll really have to be in the right mood to get the most out of this one, folks. The first part of the film is quite alienating as generally in medium shot, we watch the castle's inmates go about their daily craziness. I was struggling for a while, as even Kane is a distant character for most of the film. It's only Cutshaw and Fell who display any real emotion. Then, as we grasp who Kane really is, and see that he battles demons within, that we understand the distance and discomfort he seems to wrestle with. Keach as Kane practically explodes in the Nazi-scene and bar-room slaughter. I have a new appreciation for Stacy Keach as an actor after this film, that's for sure.

The Ninth Configuration is beautifully filmed by Gerry Fisher, and Blatty does a wonderful job directing and writing the screenplay. It's a crime this man has not made more films. Is it pretentious and laboured? Sure, at times. I can guarantee you won't forget it once you've seen it, though. Does it seem like a sequel to the Exorcist? Maybe it explores more thoroughly some of the crises of faith that Father Karras and company face in the first film. You can definitely see, in some of the religious imagery, somewhat of hint of the Exorcist III to come. There's not much horror though, unless you count the blood-spattered massacre at the bar, which is a bit of jaw-dropper after the talk-fest that's gone before. There are also some stunning scenes such as a gigantic moon rising over a tiny Apollo launch site in silhouette, and the castle sets are a gloomy, gothic joy to behold. Blatty's screenplay itself is full of quotable lines, some funny, some moving. Keach, Wilson and Flanders are all fantastic in their roles, with Wilson and Flanders in particular showing mutiple facets of humour and despair as Cutshaw and Fell/Kane. You'll find yourself thinking about God, goodness and evil a lot when the film ends, and I think that, whatever missteps Blatty makes during the film, the unique end result was worth it. It's an underrated philosophical masterpiece we have on our hands here, folks.

If I manage to inspire any of you to watch The Ninth Configuration and you're interesting in chatting about it, please let me know what you think. Love, hate, indifference - I'm keen to hear what other viewers take from this film.

© Boris "San Antone" Lugosi, 2006.

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