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Where I watch and review a movie a day. Or whenever I fucking feel like it.
For years, film lovers have been trying to define what precisely a cult film is. The mind immediately goes to crazy midnight movies or “so bad it’s good” type films that inspire audience participation but in his book Cult Movies, Danny Peary defines them as “special films which for one reason or another have been taken to heart by segments of the movie audience, cherished, protected, and most of all, enthusiastically championed.”
That’s as good a definition as you can get. A film that, for whatever reason, didn’t connect with audiences and that a small collection of fans are keeping alive with their passion. It’s not the subject matter of the film (e.g. crazy and insane) that makes them cult but the loyal (sometimes rabid) fan base that the film spawns.
Which brings us to The Ninth Configuration.
The Ninth Configuration is a cinematic catch-22. It’s weird tone and controversial subject matter kept it from connecting with audiences but it’s not weird or controversial enough to be labeled a cult film. And ironically, the only ones keeping it in the conversation are die-hard fans of the film.
It’s too good to be considered a cult film and not crazy enough to be remembered. Which is a shame because it’s one of the best films of the 80’s. The only reason I can think of for its slight obscurity, is the fact that, the novels original title, “Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killler” Kane!” is terrible and drove people away or is simply due to the fact that people are completely unaware that this is a semi-sequel to The Exorcist.
But we’ll get to that later.
Isolated within the mountainous region of the Pacific Northwest resides an old castle, which the American government has appropriated as a mental hospital – called Center 18 – for its military personnel from the Vietnam War. Former United States Marine Colonel Hudson Kane (Stacy Keach) arrives at the castle with a mission: infiltrate the hospital under the guise of a psychiatrist to weed out the soldiers faking their psychoses to avoid going back to Vietnam.
Soon after arriving, Kane meets Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders), a fellow psychiatrist who’s tasked with helping Kane settle into his position and to explain the ins and outs of Center 18. Because Center 18 is not like other mental hospitals. The confined men are granted the freedom to indulge their own self-created and ridiculous role-playing fantasies as a means of therapy, and Colonel Fell encourages Kane to play along.
There’s a man (played by Jason Miller) trying to teach Shakespeare to dogs. There’s a man (played by Moses Gunn) running around in a Superman costume, making other inmates perform plays while in blackface (it’s not as controversial as it sounds but many versions of the film have edited this scene out.)
Not all of the inmates are comedic relief however. There’s also Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), an astronaut who aborted a mission last minute because he went mad at the sudden realization that God wasn’t in space and that we’re all alone.
There’s a scene in The Exorcist, where Reagan walks downstairs into a party being held in her living room, looks at an individual talking to her mother and calmly proclaims, “you’re going to die up there.” Although the actor is different, the character she’s addressing is Captain Cutshaw.
The relationship between Kane and Cutshaw is the crux of the film. It’s a constant game of ping pong to ultimately determine whether God actually exists or not. Blatty has wrestled with these themes in almost of his writings but I think The Ninth Configuration is him at his most successful.
The film offers no easy answers but does create characters with such strong convictions, you tend to believe them simply because they believe. Kane is a complex character who, to quote Bill Murray from Rushmore, “…was in the shit.” Vietnam tried it’s damnedest to destroy him and while he saw horrors no man should ever see, he still believes that love exists in the universe.
Stacy Keach has consistently been one of the best supporting actors in the biz but this performance should’ve made him a leading man. Take Brando in his prime, plop him down into the film Shutter Island (don’t worry, that isn’t a spoiler) and that’s Keach in this. He is unreal.
As is the rest of the cast. Scott Wilson steals every scene he’s in but after witnessing his major monologue, you’ll wonder why the fuck Jason Miller had such a garbage career. After his phenomenal debut in The Exorcist, he should’ve been a star and after this, you realize he should’ve been one of the greats.
The film is the literal definition of letting the inmates run the asylum and with that structure, comes a multitude of different genres. It’s a comedy. It’s a drama. It’s a war film. It’s a meditation on the nature of evil. It’s character study. It spins many plates but not a single one falls. Which is even more impressive considering this was Blatty’s directorial debut.
Nietzsche once proclaimed that “God is dead” but Blatty disagrees. He isn’t dead, he’s just hiding on the moon.