UNDER-RATED CLASSICS #8 – THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)
Directed, written and produced by: William Peter Blatty
Based on The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
Starring: Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Robert Loggia, Moses Gunn, Joe Spinell, Neville Brand etc.
Music by: Barry De Vorzon
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
Sparked by uber-film critic Mark Kermode waxing lyrical about The Ninth Configuration (1980) in one of his cinema books, I was extremely pleased when I found a remastered 2016 reissue streaming on Amazon Prime. I don’t always agree with Kermode’s effusive praise of certain films, however, his opinion should always be respected. Having watched the film I can concur that it is indeed an under-rated classic. Just to clarify, for me, an under-rated classic can be a film I love, plus satisfy the following criteria:
- Must not have won an Oscar.
- Must not have won a BAFTA.
- Must not appear in the AFI Top 100 list.
- Must not appear in the IMDB Top 250 list.
- Must not appear in the BFI 100 Great British films.
- Must not appear in the all-time highest grossing movies of list.
While the writer and director, William Peter Blatty, won a Golden Globe for best screenplay, I feel that The Ninth Configuration (1980) is somewhat of a lost masterpiece. It was released at the same time as Ordinary People (1980) , The Elephant Man (1980) and Raging Bull (1980) and rarely seems to be discussed or praised at all these days. Well, aside from Mark Kermode’s gratefully received validation. Thematically, it is very strong as it deals with mental breakdown and illness amidst soldiers post-Vietnam. Moreover, it also contains memorable iconography within a curiously foreboding setting.
Based on Blatty’s 1978 novel, which in itself was a reworking of an earlier story called, Twinkle, Twinkle “Killer” Kane, The Ninth Configuration centres the action in a grand chateau located, rather weirdly in America somewhere. The dark, shadowy castle (which was actually in Germany), is surrounded by deep forestation and is used by the U.S. government as an insane asylum for military personnel. Spring-boarding themes and ideas from movies such as: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Mash (1970) and, in regards to its exploration of P.T.S.D., The Deer Hunter (1978), the narrative features a whole host of eccentric and over-the-edge characters. They include an Astronaut, Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), who went mad and sabotaged a space launch, Jason Miller as Lieutenant Frankie Reno, a soldier attempting to direct Hamlet with a cast of dogs; and the recently arrived, new psychiatrist, Colonel Vincent Kane (Stacey Keach). It is Kane’s and Cutshaw’s developing relationship which powers many of the philosophical and existential debates within the film’s incredible script.
For a film set in an asylum Blatty unsurpisingly uses dark humour, hysterical personalities and some incredibly funny lines of dialogue to propel an absurd first half. However, as Cutshaw and Kane’s connection grows deeper, the two men push each other into some very dark places. Exploring the slight gap between insanity and sanity is a tricky thing to get right in terms of tone, however, Blatty, is a brilliant writer and succeeds with a script that zig-zags the line between chaos and structure. He also benefits from an amazing ensemble cast of character actors who throw themselves heartily into the chaos on show. Scott Wilson and Stacey Keach are especially memorable in their intense and honest portrayals of soldiers pushed too far by their respective commands.
Overall, The Ninth Configuration (1980) is a forgotten masterpiece which deserves revisiting. I was blown away by the endlessly quotable dialogue and the risks Blatty took as a director. I mean, he opens with an incongruous Country and Western song-backed montage before the credits. This pop video beginning is jarring, but somehow makes sense in the end. Blatty then veers between farcical humour, crazed episodes involving the lunatics taking over the asylum, and philosophical and theological discourse within the therapy sessions. Finally, the film finishes with a violent and cathartic denouement, yet one which, given the dark existentialism that has unfolded, is amazingly full of hope, faith and optimism.