DIRECTOR William Peter Blatty WRITER William Peter Blatty STARS Stacy Keach; Scott Wilson; Jason Miller DVD & BLU-RAY 25 April
Let’s start with a statement: what a strange and brilliant motion picture The Ninth Configuration is. A true cult classic, it’s a film that’s often talked about and yet rarely seen, suffering from poor home video releases that have chopped the negative over the years. Thankfully, Second Sight are one of the new breed of companies dedicated to restoring cinema, and this new high-definition presentation is fully restored to the 118-minute approved version by novelist-turned-director William Peter Blatty. This is the second part of a ‘trilogy of faith’ from Blatty, which started with The Exorcist (both book and film) and concluded with Legion (a novel which formed the basis of The Exorcist III). Gesturing towards Hitchcock’s Spellbound in term of narrative, but closer in tone to Shock Corridor or the works of David Lynch, the film presents a mix of beautiful visuals, ridiculous pretentiousness, humour and action. It’s a film about psychosis and madness, and genuinely one of the more bizarre offerings of modern cinema.
For those who choose to submerge themselves in it, much of the power comes from the script, which is taken from Blatty’s novel Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, (which was an early release title for the film in some markets). The US military are trying to establish if a group of apparently deranged servicemen and one astronaut, Billy Cutshaw, are faking their insanity at a gothic castle turned medical centre called Center 18. When psychiatrist Hudson Kane arrives to take charge, he is persuaded by Cutshaw and fellow patient Reno (who is adapting the works of Shakespeare for dogs, not the weirdest thing which happens here) to indulge in the men’s delusions and engage in extravagant play therapy. Naturally Center 18 descends into insanity, and Cutshaw challenges Kane to prove the existence of God by showing him one single act of genuine self-sacrifice. But Kane himself is haunted by murderous dreams of his killer twin brother (who may in fact be himself) and is as equally disturbed as the men he’s trying to help.
With hallucinogenic visions of a lunar crucifixion to the gritty realism of a bar room brawl, via such twisted scenes as Robert Loggia lip-syncing to Al Jolson and Moses Gunn in Superman drag, Blatty directs this like a man with no understanding of, or interest in, the supposed limits of mainstream moviemaking. The dialogue is wonderful: “You remind me of Vincent Van Gogh — either that or a lark in a wheat field,” says Cutshaw. The cast are allowed to spiral off into their own individual lunacies, with Stacy Keach as Kane (never a consistent actor, but arguably career-best work here) playing straight while great character actors like Loggia, Jason Miller and Joe Spinell act like Abbott and Costello on LSD. Cinematographer Gerry Fisher tracks his camera around the castle’s corridors to an eerie score by Barry De Vorzon, creating an air of intimacy and tension that casts the viewer as both inmate and observer. Miraculously, and just as the film seems to be about to fall into total lunacy from this chaos, comes order, with a truly brilliant final half hour that turns dark and surprisingly emotional, and a form of redemption is discovered and offered by Kane to the inmates of Center 18.
Understandably, The Ninth Configuration was confusing to audiences upon release who were expecting a more straightforward horror movie from the creator of The Exorcist, and two versions were released by Warner Brothers to different markets, both of which cut much of the satire and, crucially, reworked the ending, giving the feel of an entirely different conclusion to the story than Blatty was going for. The new audio commentary by Blatty on this release documents the changes, and is also a fascinating insight into the production struggles and his efforts to have a definitive version released. Second Sight have also provided a wealth of additional material, including interviews with all the cast members — Keach talks about the film with particular fondness — and features on the production design and soundtrack, plus deleted scenes, outtakes and promotional materials. Finally, The Ninth Configuration gets the release it deserves, and you should see it. A film almost impossible to describe, but a film that is also impossible to forget.