As a writer, William Peter Blatty’s most well-known novel is The Exorcist, released in 1971. He would also win an Academy Award for his adapted screenplay of the novel two years later, and that film remains, to this day, the most famous the horror genre has ever produced. The Exorcist marked the beginning of Blatty’s Trilogy of Faith, a thrice of books and films instigating thought-provoking discussions about the existence of God, the concept of faith, and the humanity’s relationship with belief. The origins of Blatty’s trilogy began with his 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer’’ Kane; he would then rework it in 1978, releasing it as The Ninth Configuration. In 1980, Blatty himself would helm the film adaptation, after William Friedkin – the director The Exorcist – turned it down. Although not a possession film – or even a horror film for that matter – Blatty would declare The Ninth Configuration the true sequel to The Exorcist, as it served as a natural thematic successor, while the actual film sequel Heretic was viewed as an abomination. Blatty would go on to complete the trilogy with The Exorcist III: Dominion, based on his 1983 novel Legion. However, The Ninth Configuration is the film that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle somewhat throughout the years.
Stylistically, The Ninth Configuration bears no resemblance to The Exorcist films. It’s very much its own thing, with the exception of shared theological leanings. You’d be hard-pressed to compare The Ninth Configuration with any other film in existence, however. It very much sits on an island unto itself, completely disregarding the conventional structure of storytelling and establishing its own rules as it goes. Calling this film bizarre would be an understatement, but there is a method to its madness: a philosophical odyssey, taking place from within the confines of a Gothic madhouse, imbued with a farcical humor, which poses us some existential questions to ponder over. It’s part nuthouse comedy, part theological melodrama, with the occasional excursion into surrealism and bar-room brawling. How it works, only the God – whose existence is the basis for the central debate – knows. But it does, making it one of most captivating films of the 1980’s.
Taking place in an old Gothic castle-cum-military asylum, it tells the story of Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), a former marine now operating as a psychiatrist who arrives at the hospital to treat the patients. The patients include Lieutenant Frankie Reno (Jason Miller), who is trying to stage a Shakespearean production starring a cast of dogs; a patient who thinks he’s surrounded by Nazis; and Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), a disgraced astronaut suffering from a mental breakdown following a botched moon landing. In a bid to determine whether the inmates are actually insane, Kane has them enact their fantasies, turning the asylum into the living, breathing manifestations of the men’s delusions. However, it’s Cutshaw that peaks Kane’s interests the most, and much of the film is spent with the two debating the existence of God and altruism.
The Ninth Configuration is a cocktail of different moods and tones, and one could call it a confused film if it didn’t know exactly what it was doing. While Blatty does pamper the screen with his own self-indulgences, having no qualms about having his cake and eating it too, the results are still quite astonishing. As the film moves away from laugh-out-loud slapstick comedy into darker, philosophical terrains, it presents some interesting questions which provide some food for thought. Is God dead because of all the evil in the world? Is he alive because of all the good? If he does exist, then why is there so much hatred? But if he isn’t real, where does all the love come from? Is there such a thing as a good deed without selfish connotations? Can good exist without evil? The myriad of talking points make it a film well worth dissecting, provided you don’t immediately dismiss it because of less-than-subtle baffling moments.
Despite being nominated for three Golden Globes – one of which it won for Best Screenplay – The Ninth Configuration wasn’t a success when it was originally released. However, over the years it has developed a cult following, finding its place among midnight movie aficionados and films scholars, through its combination of drive-in punch and philosophical exploration of spirituality, the human condition and good versus evil. It’s a film that must be experienced at least once; whether it’s to try and decipher its meaning, or revel in its insanity. That being said, its core themes are universally human, and there haven’t been many films that have asked these questions more authentically – or bewilderingly.
The Blu-ray release comes packed with extras, including interviews with Blatty, along with cast and crew members. There is also an introduction from British film critic – and long term champion of the film – Mark Kermode. Lastly, there’s an informative commentary track with Blatty, which is worth the pick-up alone. All in all, this is an essential purchase for fans of the film, as well as collectors of cult cinemas most fascinating obscurities. If you’re new to the film, this release is the best version to-date. There have been various versions released in multiple formats throughout the years, but this release from Second Sight is the most complete and comprehensive package until now.