Saoirse’s Cult Corner #29: The Ninth Configuration (1980)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This week we look at a really under talked about gem, William Peter Blatty’s directorial debut, The Ninth Configuration.

William Peter Blatty, rest in peace, is a fascinating creator. His is only the second director to be featured here multiple times, which is somewhat appropriate, as despite the man’s long shadow left over cinema he only has two directing credits to his name. To make sense of his first credit, The Ninth Configuration, (which to be upfront about, I adore), we somewhat have to make sense of his career up to this point. 

William Peter Blatty started his career in Hollywood as a screenwriter for various studio comedies, (I know, right?), like A Shot In The Dark, the best Pink Panther film. Eventually Blatty, in a state of creative frustration, read a story in a newspaper about the alleged possession of a young girl, and this lodged in his brain. At first though, he didn’t think the story that this inspired, that being The Exorcist could work as a film in Hollywood, for what would soon be shown to be sound marketing reasons, and his eventual novel, ‘The Exorcist’, would be a phenomenon. Do I need to contextualise The Exorcist? Well It’s not a comedy. His concerns about its viability as a film were somewhat born out by problems had around convincing studio execs that the excessive brutality shown in some scenes to a little girl helped the film’s visceral horror or hindered its mainstream saleability. Blatty would go on to win an Oscar for his screenplay and as a producer loose the Best Picture Oscar to the much more broadly celebrated The Sting. The Exorcist, when adjusted for inflation, is also one of the highest grossing films of all time. The Exorcist has pulled in cinema stubs since its release 441 million dollars, in today’s money that’s over 2.5 billion. For context, two years ago Avengers: Endgame pulled 2.7 billion. A botched sequel later and Bill is in the editing room fighting for his original cut of The Exorcist III, based off his novel ‘Legion’.

What maybe qualified him to take a corrective director’s chair after John Boorman absolutely killed the franchise stone dead in the first place was an adaptation of his novel ‘The Ninth Configuration’ also known as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane’ a much, much worse title that only makes sense about two thirds into the story, and sells it as something that it’s not, as much as I love the kind of pulp novels that that title markets itself as, shades of Edgar Wallace and all that. Not that writers that like that didn’t play a big influence on what Blatty and Friedkin were doing with The Exorcist and also Blatty’s own style with The Exorcist III, they absolutely did, but there’s more to it. The fact is that the studio execs would probably know they’d end up with a fight on their hands if they’d seen the strange beast that was Blatty’s directorial debut. In order to appreciate what Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration is doing in its holistic intent you have to remember that firstly, Blatty was a comedy writer first and foremost, but also the amount of deep theological research that Blatty did writing the novel of The Exorcist. One of the priests he consulted who later agreed to be in the movie said that he’d collaborate as long as he took the theology seriously, to quote the man, “we don’t want another Rosemary’s Baby”. 

The Ninth Configuration follows Colonel Hudson Kane, played by Stacey Keach, who arrives at this strange secret facility. Basically, at the end of the Vietnam war, a lot of soldiers went strangely crazy, but instead of Born of the Fourth of July, we have Jason Miller playing a member of the ensemble cast whose teaching dogs the plays of Shakespeare, to much excellent farce, and more centrally, Scott Wilson, in a brilliant turn, as a military astronaut who refuses to fly in a fit of mania shouting that there’s nothing up there. Kane is coming to the facility, which is a secluded and mysterious government plant created to find out why everyone’s going insane, in order to apply a more psychiatric approach to the currently failing military one. The key tone setter for the picture though is that the facility is less The Andromeda Strain, slick and steely walls, than it is Nosferatu, gothic spires in the middle of a dark and dangerous wood. It has more in common with the dance school in Suspiria than, say, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, (both incredible films). It lends the film an ethereal, elegiac, deeply metaphorical, deeply dreamlike, and fable like quality. It feels like, in much the same way as The Exorcist, that this is a case study, a petri dish of humanity, a metaphor for the deep struggles of life and humanity and God. 

Now, the whole deal with The Exorcist is that the God and Devil in that story represent aspects of the darkness of people in the metaphor of the film. Despite the fact that they exist in the lore of The Exorcist, the message of the film doesn’t necessarily rely on them existing outside of the film. The existence of the Devil in The Exorcist necessitates the existence of God, therefor, the existence of the representation of the ultimate evil necessitates the existence of goodness, the goodness of people. The Exorcist III has a much more nihilistic ending, so regarding The Ninth Configuration, when these questions made themselves known in the film, the big question for me was which way Blatty would come down on them this time, and I’m not going to tell you the ending but I’ll tell you that The Ninth Configuration is maybe Blatty’s most tender, and hopeful film. It is also maybe his most frank and human film in its dealings with these themes, deeply aware of the human tragedy, but the fact that it plays more like a Shakespearean comedy, with all of the lightness and fantastical joy that comes with it, than anything overtly horrific despite taking a lot of influence from horror storytelling, enables it to zero in on the raging humanity of the story. The Ninth Configuration enables Blatty to hone in on the much more subtle emotions at stake that he played with so well in The Exorcist III.  

Now, I’m someone who myself faces deep questions of theology just by living inside my own head. I feel a strong impulse to believe in something, I feel a strange awareness of something being out there and around me. I say that I am emotionally religious but logically atheistic, and that’s where my religion stops. I feel a deep spirituality and often feel emotions, impulses, and questions coming out of the ether in a quasi-religious way, but I can’t bring myself to actually believe in anything in particular. The fact that I’m queer and trans doesn’t uncomplicate matters really. How this manifests in my movie watching is that while being staunchly atheistic, and very secure in my belief that there is no God, films that question the existence of God, especially in a metaphorical, surreal, horror setting, tend to really compel me. Questions about reaching out to a God and finding nothing or uncertainty tend to really affect me. Even films where the horror isn’t directly religious but rely on an understanding of a Christian mythos as the backdrop for the construction of the world and the horror get to me, witch films like my favourite film, Suspiria or Lovecraftian fiction like my other favourite horror film, The Thing, they do get me. Even to look outside of traditional western Christianity, a film like The Wailing has a similar effect. What The Ninth Configuration does really well is create a slightly elevated reality where these players can strut their stuff on a very constructed stage and it plays out a battle for the soul of humanity, but always feeling like it’s about people who you believe in totally right at its center, and it’s tragic, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s funny, and it’s eerie, and it’s often shot and sound designed like a fucking Tarkovsky film, it’s deeply textural, it has a painter’s eye to it’s cinematography, and I think it only slightly missteps once. There’s a scene in a bar that seems like it’s airlifted in from a different movie and the mystical tonal spell is slightly broken but the character work being done in that scene is brilliant. 

The Ninth Configuration is not widely seen, it’s not even very widely talked about, and I think that’s because it is incredibly hard to categorise. It feels like no other movie I can think of, and that, in the end, is its greatest strength.

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