Cult Cinema: The Ninth Configuration

The Ninth Configuration is a strange, genre bending piece of cinema that deserves a review.

"I'm Stacy Keach damn it!
Stop making fun of my costume!"
When we think of sequels, we think of features following in the footsteps of its predecessor, whether it be continuity of events, tone, or approach altogether.  It's when we delve a little deeper into what truly constitutes a sequel to a great work that the notion grows somewhat more indistinct.  While direct-sequels are often picking up where the prior work left off, sometimes a sequel can follow a work in theory rather than being overtly connected to it.  For example, Warner Brothers considers Exorcist II: The Heretic to be the true sequel to The Exorcist in spite of the public and authorial rejection of the piece.  William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, considers Cruising to be the spiritual sequel to The Exorcist.  Finally and most importantly, the original writer of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, considers his film adaptation of his own novel, The Ninth Configuration.

Also known in some territories as Twinkle Twinkle, “Killer” Kane, writer William Peter Blatty's directorial debut is a genre-bending mixture of absurdist comic satire and existential horror film.  The film concerns a castle being used by the US government as an insane asylum for the military.  Among the castle's bizarre inhabitants is Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), a former astronaut who abandons a space mission.  Meanwhile Colonel Kane (Stacey Keach) of the US Marine Corps arrives on the scene to assume responsibility for the care of the patients, and may be insane himself.  It's around the point Kane and Cutshaw engage in theological conversations that the film shifts gears from being maniacally crazed to unrelentingly dark.  Cutshaw takes the stance that mankind is born of amoral chance while Kane tries to profess his faith in a caring and evolved God, and that pure human sacrifice is exemplary of the goodness in man.  It's at a surreal and strangely terrifying bar fight with demonic bikers that both men’s theories and beliefs will be put to the ultimate test.

Stacey Keach is stellar as Colonel Kane, freely skirting between complacent calm and unmitigated, screaming insanity. Equally strong is Scott Wilson as a once headstrong man crippled from within by his own fears.  The supporting cast, notably in the earlier half, are populated by a wild cast of characters including a truly crazed Robert Loggia roaring out the castle windows.  Look closely at the opening scene and you'll spot Blatty in a cameo.  Aside from the casting of Jason Miller (Father Karras from The Exorcist) as a particularly mad former Lieutenant, it's Cutshaw who serves as the direct link to The Exorcist.  For those who recall Friedkin's film, an astronaut is approached by a 12 year old girl named Regan who informs him he will die in space before urinating on the floor.  While The Ninth Configuration doesn't appear to have overt demonic possession taking place in its universe, it does manage to conjure up theological fears.  Most notable (and serving as the DVD cover) is a striking image of an astronaut on the moon coming upon Christ on the cross.  Blatty seems to suggest the forces of evil within our universe extend far beyond the stars.  The biker gang fight itself moves away from standard drunken bar brawls and closer towards the presence of a demonic cult.

"Umm umm ummm......I just love the taste of urine."

For a first time director, shooting in widescreen, The Ninth Configuration (though available only via badly damaged prints) is a splendidly photographed cult epic.  Originally the story itself was based on a straight comedy piece Blatty had written before his eventual obsession with the mysteries of theology and the forces of good and evil began assimilating all of his work.  Unlike the enormous worldwide success of his Exorcist, this wasn't going to be an easy sell by any means.  Initially released to poor box office performance through Warner Brothers, the studio withdrew the film and allowed Blatty to sell it to other distributors, resulting in the alternate title Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane.  As the film bounced about in distribution Hell over the years on video, cuts were made to the film's ending against Blatty's wishes.  It wasn't until, in a strange twist of fate, Warner Brothers reacquired the rights to The Ninth Configuration that Blatty's cut (ported from a UK DVD release) saw the light of day once again on home video.  Though badly damaged and immediately affronting to viewer's expectations and tolerance, this is an absolutely unique gem of a film and a truer sequel to Blatty's Exorcist than any of the misguided attempts that have come and gone over the past few decades.  

-Andrew Kotwicki