The Ninth Configuration

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE NINTH CONFIGURATION

5/10

aka Twinkle Twinkle, Killer Kane : USA 1979 (released 1980) : William Peter BLATTY : (108-)118 mins

A film’s first line of dialogue is often its most revealing. The Ninth Configuration begins with crazed astronaut Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) being dragged away from rocket after an aborted countdown: “There’s nothing up there!” he yelps – and what follows is, indeed, one of the most enjoyably dunderheaded movies ever committed to celluloid. After writing The Exorcist – a crude (but effective and massively successful) potboiler of a novel turned in 1973 by William Friedkin into a crude (but effective and massively successful) potboiler of a movie – Blatty was suddenly rich, famous, and taken seriously in some quarters as a thinker. Many people embraced the phenomenon of The Exorcist so avidly they couldn’t accept the film as ‘merely’ slam-bang entertainment: they divined layers of theological, sociological, psychological and philosophical depth that said more about their own needs and desires than about Blatty and Friedkin’s intentions.

Neither got involved in John Boorman’s universally-reviled The Exorcist II : The Heretic (1977, subsequently airbrushed out of Boorman’s CV), their swollen egos demanding that they move on to more grandiose projects. For Friedkin, this meant the universally-reviled Sorcerer (1977) – for Blatty, the overblown Ninth Configuration, based on his 1966 novel Twinkle Twinkle, Killer Kane (the film’s alternative title). Though made in 1979, it was only very briefly released in the US a year later – but nevertheless nabbed Blatty a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay.

Has there ever been a more unworthy winner of a major film award? The other Globe nominees were: The Elephant Man, Raging Bull, The Stunt Man and Ordinary People. Original-Screenplay Oscar winner Melvin and Howard didn’t even make the final five, and neither did Gloria, Coal Miner’s Daughter, American Gigolo, The Empire Strikes Back, Dressed To Kill, Le Dernier Metro, The Shining, The Long Good Friday or The Long Riders – any one of which would have been more worthy of the award than Blatty’s sophomoric mish-mash of quarter-baked ideas.

That said, whatever Blatty’s shortcomings as a writer, Ninth Configuration (and also his only subsequent picture, 1990’s underrated Exorcist III ) shows ability on the directing front. The film begins with a strikingly original opening sequence: aerial shots of a mist-shrouded, very Germanic castle accompanied by the radically contrasting strains of Barry Devorzon’s lyrical, very American lament ‘San Antone.’ This unsettling mismatch of image and sound brilliantly sets the mood, and is followed by an equally memorable title sequence: Cutshaw’s rocket on its launch-pad is dwarfed by a wildly oversized moon rising up out of the night horizon.

But then Blatty (awkwardly) cuts to the astronaut’s ravings, and the film takes a sudden downhill descent. Cutshaw is one of the inmates at a remote psychiatric institute in northern California – the castle from the opening shots, supposedly transferred from Germany brick-by-brick on the orders of an eccentric millionaire in an act of expensive folly reminiscent of The Ninth Configuration itself (filmed at Burg Elz on the Mosel river and indoors in Budapest studios). The institute, mainly populated by Vietnam veterans who ‘flipped out’, is a stereotypical cinema ‘loony bin’, full of picturesque ‘crazies’ rambling away to their heart’s content and littering the soundtrack with non-sequitur asides (“Rudolph Valentino hated cabbage”).

The arrival of crack army psychiatrist Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach) is a welcome change of pace for both inmates and audience – in stark contrast to the frantic shenanigans unspooling all around him, Kane is an eerily still and calm counterpoint. Physically imposing, but almost whispering his lines and clearly haunted by his own traumas, Kane is a fascinating enigma – to which we’re provided with brief clues in the form of tantalising ‘Nam flashbacks. The men discover that Kane’s brother was the notoriously psychotic G.I. Vincent ‘Killer’ Kane – but there’s much more to the story than even they suspect.

The Ninth Configuration is an uneven mess, loaded down with pseudo-philosophical dialogue that even the chatterboxes of Waking Life would dismiss as sophomoric (the title refers to the colossally improbable arrangement of protein atoms necessary for organisms to exist on Earth, and thus supposedly evidence of God.) Straining desperately for profundity, Blatty’s tone veers awkwardly from comedy (including moments of cack-handed slapstick) to The Keep-style horror (a large photo of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula dominates one room), with often painful results. The actors are indulged with what resembles a series of over-extended audition pieces: Cutshaw’s especially annoying ‘routines’ come off like a cross between Monty Python and a very bad student revue. Blatty’s treatment of Robert Loggia, who dresses up in a silly astronaut costume at one stage, is especially embarrassing. If the aim is to disorient, to create a nightmarish sense of dislocation, then Blatty succeeds all too well.

Despite all that’s wrong with The Ninth Configuration, however, it is worth sticking with. Because in the final reel Blatty tears himself away from his theories and games to deliver a delirious sequence of low-brow ultra-violence. It’s just like in The Exorcist when, after what seems like hours of windy theological debate, ace boxer Father Karras realises the only way of forcing the demon to leave Regan’s body is to beat the shit out of her. Here, Kane rides to the rescue when Cutshaw finds himself stuck in a local roadhouse full of loutish bikers – and the psychologist is sufficiently goaded by the boorish thugs to sheds his saintly exterior. It’s a truly volcanic performance – ominously dormant for so long, then suddenly cataclysmic in its intensity.

Kane’s kill-crazy rampage is worthy of Takashi Miike at his best – see the ‘tire-iron’ massacre in Deadly Outlaw. But this is, above all, a sensational, truly volcanic performance from the underrated, scarily convincing Keach, making a rare appearance without his moustache to show off the hare-lip scar which hints at Kane’s divided personality. He’s so perfect in the role that it’s hard to believe he was a last-minute replacement for Nicol Williamson – Wilson was also an eleventh-hour stand-in, Michael Moriarty having been fired after only an hour on set (according to Tom Atkins). This roadhouse sequence is sufficiently effective to even compensate for the bathetic scenes that follow, in which Blatty reverts to his previous trite form: Cutshaw, redeemed by Kane’s actions and thus rather unconvincingly ‘cured,’ unfortunately survives to deliver a windily preposterous final line.

28th March, 2003
(seen 22nd March, Pictureville Bradford – Bradford Film Festival)

by Neil Young