259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

AKA Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane

“Kane said quietly, ‘Why won’t you go to the moon?’

‘Why do camels have humps and cobras none? Good Christ, man, don’t ask the heart for reasons! Reasons are dangerous!'”

–William Peter Blatty, The Ninth Configuration (novel)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders

PLOT: Col. Kane, a U.S. Marines psychiatrist, is assigned to an experimental program in a castle housing delusional military officers who are suspected malingerers. There, he bonds with Cutshaw, a militantly atheist and misanthropic astronaut, with whom he engages in passionate dialogues about the existence of God. One night, Cutshaw breaks out of the compound and heads for a bar frequented by a rough motorcycle gang; Kane follows.

Still from The Ninth Configuration (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Peter Blatty (“The Exorcist”) adapted the screenplay from his own 1978 novel, which was itself a reworking of a 1966 novel (“Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane”) with which he had been dissatisfied. This was his directorial debut (in a career that reached three films with 2016’s Legion).
  • Blatty originally wrote a “Kane” screenplay that he hoped would be filmed by in the early Seventies, but they could not find a studio willing to produce it. Blatty and Friedkin collaborated on The Exorcist (1973) instead.
  • Although the script made the rounds in Hollywood for years, no studio would back The Ninth Configuration. Blatty eventually funded the film half with his own money and half with a donation from Pepsico, who were willing to provide funds for complicated international tax reasons so long as the film was shot entirely in Hungary.
  • Blatty has fiddled with the editing through the years, deleting and restoring scenes, so that cuts run anywhere from 99 minutes to 140 minutes.
  • According to Blatty, The Ninth Configuration‘s Cutshaw is the same character as the astronaut who attended the dinner party in The Exorcist.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: What else could it possibly be besides the crucifixion on the moon?

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lunar Calvary; lunatic with a jet-pack; dog Hamlet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Obsession is fertile soil for a weird movie. The Ninth Configuration is a movie in a madhouse that sets out to do nothing less than to prove the existence of God; it doesn’t, naturally, but the ambition involved makes for some strange choices, invoking a passion that carries the story over some rough patches.


Clip from The Ninth Configuration

COMMENTS: The Ninth Configuration posits that a world without God is a madhouse. An unexplained epidemic of apparent insanity strikes Vietnam War enlistees and other military types, including a NASA astronaut who’s now afraid to go to the Moon. The suspected malingerers are sent, naturally, to a castle in the Pacific Northwest, where they await the arrival of one Colonel Kane, a military psychiatrist with some odd ideas of his own. By the end of the film, Kane’s unorthodox therapeutic methods involve the inmates putting on a Shakespeare play cast entirely with dogs, roleplaying that they are prisoners of war and the hospital staff Nazi concentration camp officers, and inexplicably flying through the castle corridors in a jet pack. In other words, Configuration seems to be a wacky combination of M*A*S*H* and the early reels of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a touch of Spellbound (a movie which is explicitly referenced—whether as a hint or a red herring, you’ll have to watch to find out).

That outline makes Configuration sound like an anti-authoritarian satire—which it is, at times. The main point of departure is that the comedy is tinged with a melancholy performance from a world-weary Stacy Keach, and the characters argue a lot about theology. The movie itself is possibly even more schizophrenic than its Corporal Klinger-esque patients, bouncing around from mood to mood and finding time to shoehorn in a hallucination where the astronaut encounters a crucifixion on the Moon and a barroom brawl that pits a single Marine against a motorcycle gang. The inmates supply a wealth of insane asides, like Robert Loggia singing Al Jolson in blackface, poodle auditions, a literary analysis of Hamlet’s madness by a fellow lunatic, and a man in nun drag. Dialogue like “you remind me of Vincent Van Gogh—either that, or a lark in a wheat field” and “sleeping pills keep you awake… why should I have to explain that, it’s self explanatory?” sprinkles the script—and those are lines spoken by the supposedly sane characters. Against this backdrop of casual madness, the deadly seriousness of Kane and Cutshaw’s desperate metaphysical investigation pops out like a castle rising out of the Oregon fog. The origin of the plague of mental illness is never explained, although we can presume it’s a metaphor for the situation of men who have lost faith in something larger than themselves.

The core of the movie is the relationship between the stoic Kane and reluctant astronaut Cutshaw—although the tension between Kane and the rest of the medical staff (especially eccentric medic Fell, who likes to walk around in his boxers and takes his morning Scotch with Alka-Seltzer) is a constant undercurrent. Still, although the priest from The Exorcist wants to cast a Dalmatian in “Julius Caesar” while another inmate advises changing the script Superman swoops in to save the dictator from Brutus and Cassius, the astronaut Cutshaw quickly announces himself as Kane’s main foil and the most interesting case. Wearing a letterman’s jacket, he bursts into the doctor’s drawing room on day one acting like a cross between Hawkeye Pierce and Groucho Marx. He begins in hostility, pointing an accusing finger at Kane and shouting “this man treats crocodiles for acne!,” leaping around the room, and throwing about files and books. He’s noticeably reluctant to discuss why he chickened out of his big space flight (he’s reported to have said at the time “going to the Moon is naughty, impolite, uncouth, and in any case, bad for my skin”), which fascinates Kane. When Cutshaw learns that Kane’s a Catholic, he initially takes it as another avenue of attack (“show me a Catholic and I’ll show you a junkie”), but slowly channels his hostility into a genuine religious dialogue with Kane, which leads to a competitive friendship as the patient and doctor debate the existence of God.

Using Kane as his mouthpiece, Blatty makes two arguments for the existence of God in the movie. The title The Ninth Configuration refers to the first of these, a one-paragraph summary of Lecomte du Nouy’s evolutionary theories that life is too complex to have evolved on Earth by chance. Besides the speculative difficulty of coming up with such probabilities, this argument (at least in the Cliff’s Notes form given in the film) is fallacious, because it only considers the possibility of life arising on Earth, not to life developing anywhere in the universe (or multiverse). It’s like arguing that because the chances of you picking the correct Powerball numbers are effectively nil, it’s impossible for anyone to win the lottery. Despite naming the movie after this argument, it’s not the one the story picks as its champion, however. Blatty rather favors what he calls “the mystery of good,” his conception that a seed of universal love can be the only explanation for one man taking the irrational action of sacrificing his life for his fellow men. There is a fatal paradox with this argument from altruism, however: if someone wants to commit a selfless act—to quiet their own doubts, or assuage their own guilt, or to enjoy the thrill of martyrdom and the blessings of the next life—then by definition, the act will not be selfless. Psychology and genetic theory provide plenty of rational explanations for self-sacrificing behavior that don’t rely on God’s existence to work.

In his defense, I don’t think Blatty is naive enough to suggest that he has discovered the magic bullet proof of God’s existence in The Ninth Configuration. He merely finds that the existence of “selfless” love suggests and supports the idea of a beneficently created universe. Whether you agree or not, you have to admit it’s the kind of subject that doesn’t get addressed often in movies, even weird ones. Adults don’t discuss this topic; generally, by the time you’ve entered your second decade of life you’ve already come down firmly on one side of the issue or the other, and unless you’re Richard Dawkins or a Jehovah’s Witness you’ve figured out that your passionate arguments are more likely to cause hard feelings than to sway the opposite side. What’s appealing about Kane and Cutshaw’s relationship is not that they come to a firm conclusion about God’s existence, but that they open their hearts and minds to each other and share their deepest thoughts. They bond over the shared search for an answer, even though they hold starkly opposing views. Their debates took me back to my undergrad days when freshmen argued such Consequential Matters during late-night bull sessions, making me feel that rush of intellectual energy and camaraderie once again. As the work of a passionate first time director shooting for the moon, The Ninth Configuration comes highly recommended, though more for what it attempts than for what it achieves.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…combining scabrous satire with sanguine spirituality in one of the most genuinely bizarre offerings of modern US cinema… Blatty directs like a man with no understanding of, or interest in, the supposed limits of mainstream movie-making. The result is a work of matchless madness which divides audiences as spectacularly as the waves of the Red Sea, a cult classic that continues to provoke either apostolic devotion or baffled dismissal 20 years on.”–Mark Kermode, “Sight and Sound”

“I’ve got a weakness for a certain kind of wacky personal filmmaking—movies… that aren’t ‘well made’ by any standard but clearly mean so much to their creators that all aesthetic rules crumble in the face of their bizarre, unaccountable intensity. William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration may be a classic of this peculiar genre…”–Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

“The dialog is weird and often incomprehensible in this very strange, personal film, but Blatty has a good sense of the absurd and handles the direction well, making sure things are never quite what they seem to be.”–TV Guide

IMDB LINK: The Ninth Configuration (1980)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

theninthconfiguration.com – Fan site dedicated to the film and the work of William Peter Blatty

Q&A: Stacy Keach talks “THE NINTH CONFIGURATION” – 2013 Fangoria interview with star Keach

Kermode Uncut: The Ninth Configuration – Film critic Mark Kermode, the film’s biggest promoter, uses the 2016 UK Blu-ray release as an excuse to pimp The Ninth Configuration (YouTube)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980) – This site’s original List Candidate review of the film

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The Ninth Configuration – Blatty’s 1978 novel

DVD INFO: In 2014 Henstooth Video released what will likely be the definitive edition of The Ninth Configuration in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack (buy). The film is presented in Blatty’s preferred (for the time being) 2-hour cut, with the original ending restored. Blatty supplies an audio commentary, with film critic and ultra-fan Mark Kermode directing the discussion. Kermode also hosts a six-minute introduction to the film, and twenty minutes of alternate scenes and deleted footage (including a dream sequence with a crucified Kane getting his marching orders from two angels) make up the rest of the extra features.

(This movie was nominated for review by Kat, who said that there was an “atmosphere of overwrought emotion and barely concealed hysteria about the whole thing that left me feeling a bit creeped out.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)”

  1. I think you meant ‘Corporal Klinger-esque…’
    Anyways, great movie. I feel that it isn’t appreciated enough (even as cult movie).

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