In order for life to have appeared spontaneously on Earth, there first had to be hundreds of millions of protein molecules of the ninth configuration. But given the size of the planet Earth, do you know how long it would take for just one of these protein molecules to appear entirely by chance? Roughly 10-to-the-243rd power billions of years. And I find that far, far more fantastic than simply believing in a God.—William Peter Blatty, from the script of The Ninth Configuration
One criticism frequently leveled at the movie version of William Peter Blatty’s book “The Exorcist” is that, rather than leave the actual existence of the Devil as the subject of some speculation, the film cranked up marvelously grotesque special effects that not only had the impact of—ahem—scaring the hell out of everyone, it also left exactly no doubt as to whether or not young Regan MacNeil’s body was invaded by a supernatural predator who could only be exorcised by “the power of Christ.”
For a long while in Blatty’s truly one-of-a-kind 1980 film The Ninth Configuration, based on his 1966 novel “Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane,” it appears that the writer (now also seated in the director’s chair) is going to be aiming for the former, a provocative ambiguity—despite concocting a sublimely bizarre setting in which lunatics fly by on jet packs unnoticed and dogs are trained to perform the works of William Shakespeare. In other words, Blatty designs just the sort of universe where miracles might appear commonplace, but for the most important one required by the story. It’s a fascinating setup.
His Catholicism, however, appears to get the better of him.
Blatty’s film has, since its unsuccessful theatrical run, remained a cult object that comes with a “love it or hate it” reputation, and if I had to pick a side, I’d say I loved it—with a boldly asterisked reservation.
The plot involves the existence of a secret government operation (you know, back in the old days, when the government used to carry out secret stuff) based inside a Pacific Northwest castle—a makeshift asylum of sorts used to house soldiers who have escaped service in the Vietnam War by reason of insanity…or, so they might pretend. There is some suspicion on the part of the government that these men who have evidenced one form of madness or another could be faking in order to avoid the dangers of combat, so this hidden “study center,” among others, has been established to conduct investigations into the true nature of the epidemic.
It’s an elegant scripting analog for an exploration of religious beliefs, just as the castle’s many looming gargoyles provide a physical backdrop to remind us that associations between madness and faith are invited to be made as we move through the plot.
Arriving to take charge of the institution is psychiatrist Col. Kane (Stacy Keach), the man resident physician Col. Richard Fell (Ed Flanders) has brought in to facilitate some unique, and hopefully curative, new treatments. Kane’s two most challenging patients turn out to be Reno (Jason Miller), the diva-like dramatist preparing to stage an all-canine version of Hamlet, and Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson)—an astronaut whose raving fit caused the cancellation of a planned voyage to the moon only moments before takeoff.
Kane’s introductions to those and other residents of the gloomy castle are chaotic and comedic, boasting long riffs of seriously eccentric, literate, and self-conscious banter the “average” viewer might quickly dismiss as pretentious, if not utterly impenetrable. If the setup is played for hifalutin’ farce, however, it doesn’t take too long for Blatty to begin introducing the film’s more complex agenda.
Getting in the way of Kane’s work with the patients are intensifying nightmares and waking hallucinations of his own—concerning the half-remembered details of the man he recalls as his late brother, Vincent “Killer” Kane; not a Buck Rogers villain, but a soldier who earned the vicious nickname while serving in Southeast Asia, due to his legendary exploits in murdering people with his bare hands.
Kane is especially haunted by a brutal act involving the decapitation of a young person who “kept talking” after the grisly assault. He’s having “someone else’s dream,” he tells Fell; and those visions lead him into discursive conversations with Reno, whose dog-centric obsessions with the Bard give way to dueling concepts of Hamlet’s mental disposition; and with failed space jockey Cutshaw, the high-maintenance court jester whose jittery reluctance to reveal exactly why he refused to leave Earth’s surface eventually prompts both men into searing questions of theodicy.
Built into the growing difficulties Kane has in recognizing the source of his own psychic crisis are almost vaudevillian encounters with patients like Nammack (Moses Gunn), determined to merge his identity with that of the comic book hero Superman; Groper (Neville Brand), another would-be interstellar traveler; and Blatty himself, who appears in a small role as a patient who tries to fool Kane into believing he’s actually a doctor—a neat little piece of irony and just one of many narrative seeds planted in the film that viewers will find doubly rewarding on a second viewing (should one choose to undertake it) once all the story’s surprises are revealed.
By the time Kane is forced to leave the asylum and retrieve the fugitive Cutshaw, who goes AWOL to a biker bar after a meltdown, he has reached his own breaking point, and is bullied into a moment that recalls the uncomfortable catharsis of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—a moment you have been waiting to see happen, and are energized to see happen, even as you understand darkly that the choice Kane makes registers a turning point from which there will be no escape…and only one possibility for redemption.
At least, “redemption” as this movie defines it—which, considering its preoccupation with the Catholic faith, presents a tricky boatload of contradictions. My account of the story here obviously reveals a good bit of dancing around the details; as others who have written about the film have noted, it’s a tightrope you have to walk, as it’s necessary to discuss the plot to give some sense of the movie’s uncommon qualities, but equally of special importance to allow the film to unveil its own secrets to achieve maximum effect.
Blatty had me up until the final few seconds. I was convinced the credits were about to roll on a movie where the thesis would be matched by not just its dramatic magnitude, but also by its narrative integrity.
Alas, in those final seconds—literally—there is a bit of hocus-pocus that robs the film of perfection and seats it instead in the realm of wish fulfillment.
I had an indirect acquaintance with a man asked one day to offer his moral stance on a controversial subject. He demurred, saying he’d have to wait until he could go home and “look it up.” Look it up where? The Bible, of course. He couldn’t—and wouldn’t—answer the question for himself, and refused the opportunity to do any independent thinking about it. This is some people’s comfort zone, and my impression of The Ninth Configuration is that Blatty must have believed himself to be successfully playing to the audience that wants to have those kinds of answers made flesh in their fiction.
The problem is that those are the very people who will probably abandon this film much earlier, dismissing it as a piece of hoity-toity elitism…sometime between the impression they get that the movie might be sympathetic to men feigning insanity to avoid fighting in an unpopular war and the feeling that the film might contain the discomforting imputation that belief in a Supreme Being could be just one more avenue to going batshit crazy.
Or, if they’re especially cine-literate, they might have checked out after only 14 minutes in, when a stone representation of the Crucifixion is linked, through a series of match cuts, to the image of Bela Lugosi from Dracula. Yes, on more than one occasion, the movie has a sly sense of humor.
There are so many layers to this journey. The Ninth Configuration manages to be “about” insanity, Vietnam, Shakespeare, loneliness, and the concept of God all at once. If you have an adventurous spirit, and are prepared to like a movie that asks you to accept the paradox that a man’s radical sacrifice can be both an act of sin and salvation at the same time, Blatty’s film is a challenge worth accepting.