Lately, it seems almost as if Cinema Fearité has been more of a memorandum column for horror icons who have passed away than a weekly tribute to cool horror movies. Well, it happened again; William Peter Blatty died last week of plasma cell myeloma at the age of 89. Blatty will far and away always be remembered as the man who wrote The Exorcist, both the novel and the screenplay, but he had a healthy little moviemaking career outside of that one film as well. In 1980, seven years after The Exorcist, Blatty was given the chance to direct a movie himself with The Ninth Configuration.
The Ninth Configuration is set in and around an abandoned castle in the Pacific Northwest United States that has been converted into a military psychiatric hospital. A Marine Corps colonel named Kane (Nebraska’s Stacy Keach) shows up to help the resident psychiatrist, Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders from Salem’s Lot), with the care of the patients. Kane is most interested in one patient in particular: an astronaut named Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson, better known as Herschel from “The Walking Dead”) who had a nervous breakdown just before he was supposed to go to the moon. Cutshaw is no ordinary mental patient, however, and he soon suspects that Colonel Kane himself may not be playing with a full deck.
Also known as Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane (although that title is a wee bit of a spoiler), The Ninth Configuration was adapted by Blatty himself from his own 1978 novel, a novel which was a retooling of his 1966 book Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane! Did you follow that? The movie itself comes off as a clever cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Jacob’s Ladder, with reality meshing with fiction and the line between the crazy and the sane being almost completely indistinguishable.
At the start, The Ninth Configuration seems almost like a dark comedy, something along the lines of MASH. But, as the movie goes on, the humor slowly fades away as the film gets more philosophical and theological in nature. The second half of the movie would make M. Night Shyamalan proud, with tense and uncomfortable moments being held together by jaw-dropping twist after twist as the film careens towards its brilliant climax, a climax in which Colonel Kane really shows his true colors. The Ninth Configuration is surreal and strange at times, but that just furthers the viewer’s empathy with the madness of the players.
And what a band of players it is. There’s a fine ensemble in The Ninth Configuration making up the colorful cast of characters that stalks the halls of the asylum along with Stacy Keach and Scott Wilson. A lot of the more philosophical and heady moments in the film are supplied by Blatty’s old The Exorcist pal Jason Miller, whose Lieutenant Frankie Reno waxes poetic and dramatic as he tries to produce Shakespeare plays with dogs in all of the lead roles (of course, he’s an inmate). Several other familiar faces round out the motley band of patients, including Robert Loggia (The Lost Missile), Moses Gunn (Rollerball), Joe Spinell (Maniac), and Alejandro Rey (TerrorVision). Not to be outdone, the hospital staff includes none other than Tom Atkins (Maniac Cop, Night of the Creeps) and Neville Brand (Eaten Alive, Without Warning). Finally, famous tough guys Steve Sandor (Stryker, Fire and Ice) and Richard Lynch (Bad Dreams, The Lords of Salem) show up as a very un-tough-looking biker gang that figures heavily in the awesome climax of the film.
Photographically, The Ninth Configuration is a very cold movie. The film was shot by cinematographer Gerry Fisher (Wolfen, See No Evil), with Germany standing in for the Pacific Northwest (since when are there old castles in Oregon, anyway?). Externally, there’s plenty of rain and fog to keep the mood somber, even when the lunatics are acting nutty. The internal scenes are lit with sparse and organic lighting, so that the whole thing looks, well, like it takes place inside of an abandoned castle. Whether the action is inside the castle walls or out, The Ninth Configuration has a gritty look that goes well with the various military themes of the movie.
A decade later, William Peter Blatty would get another chance to direct when he took many of the cast and crew members of The Ninth Configuration and made the “good” sequel to his masterpiece: The Exorcist III. Although it didn’t find the same success as The Exorcist, the movie is still a cult hit today, and it contains one of the most legendary jump scares in horror history. Still, Blatty will forever be known as the guy who wrote The Exorcist. And that’s fine. Rest in peace.