“You have to say, ‘Simon Says.’ Then we’ll do it.”
The history behind William Peter Blatty‘s The Ninth Configuration adds a ton of insight into its ambitious yet lacking film adaptation. His original intent, for instance, was to create a comic novel. Blatty has even been quoted as saying he prefers the first version he wrote in 1966 entitled Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane! It was only after working alongside William Friedkin on the set of The Exorcist that he chose to go back and do a rewrite. This retro-fitted evolution is very apparent in the film with Act One playing with a farcical lilt a la King of Hearts before spirituality and philosophy enter to shroud Act Two under a much darker atmosphere full of the psychological thriller type reveals we’ve been awaiting. Humor replaced by poignant melancholy.
There’s also the notion that this was Blatty’s debut behind the camera. Whether inexperience on his part or merely the film being almost forty years old now, the finished piece is hardly perfect. There’s tonal incongruity, obvious foreshadowing rendering twists inevitable (despite cues hoping to augment our shock), and multiple instances of unintentional laughter during the second half. The latter is very apparent since the first half is so intentionally funny, its motley crew of military men relegated to a government-run insane asylum riling each other up as well as the poor officer charged with keeping them in line (Neville Brand‘s Major Marvin Groper). We bask in the frivolity of their nonsense while attempting to pick out which we believe to be genuine and which not—if any.
It starts abruptly with a prologue of sorts focusing on Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) peering out the window of the large castle serving as their home, a record playing. The camera moves outside to gaze upon the architecture and back again, the song’s end propelling us towards a nightmarish memory of Cutshaw’s failed shuttle launch into space as credit sequence. We experience what it is that haunts this man, the torture of it proving bleak and all consuming. It’s no wonder he retreats into himself as a means of avoidance. How else can you stop yourself from feeling that terror again and again if not by going a bit batty for distraction? So he puts on ridiculous clothing, rallies the troops, and readies for some expert emotional deflection.
The difference on this day is the arrival of Colonel Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), the new psychiatrist enlisted to coax these men back from the brink of insanity. He’s now in charge with Major Groper, Dr. Fell (Ed Flanders), and a couple lieutenants falling in line behind his fresh take on therapy. Kane wants an open door to his patients, the result proving hilarious with Cutshaw barging in full of spit and vinegar while Lt. Frankie Reno (Jason Miller) enters to explain his motivations for an all-dog performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s through these two men that we begin to peel back the layers of metaphor for fear, guilt, and psychosis. It’s through them that we begin to see Kane is hardly one hundred percent himself.
In comes the tonal shift as we start to see the tragedy in the eyes of the men who were making us laugh. Experiments such as role-playing with the patient’s every whim are introduced, revolt appears on the horizon, and we can feel something isn’t quite right. Suspense appears as we ready ourselves for understanding the true dynamic at work, each seemingly “off” identity exposed as such. This is where existentialism and theology are introduced via the constant struggle between mankind’s selfish desires and selfless heroism. Suddenly we remember that these men are soldiers who have seen things we could never imagine. And with all that violence and murder, how could life not seem futile? Why would a God who made them kill ever care if they lived?
The climax brings this question to a head during a massive bar fight pitting Cutshaw and Kane against two brutish bikers (Steve Sandor and Richard Lynch). It’s a scene that leaves me conflicted because its content is key to unlocking the film despite its execution being campy and overlong. I get the length because the constant “trials” are what bring the defenses of these men down to remember who they are and why they joined the Army to begin with, but that doesn’t make it less tiresome. Sandor can’t prevent his muscle-bound, eyeliner-wearing foe from seeming hokey either. For a film that transforms into an emotionally authentic look at the human psyche and PTSD, finding itself beholden to a melodramatic brawl with stereotypically hammy villains is too far.
I really liked Miller as the Shakespeare connoisseur with the pointed question that gets the ball rolling as far as the lengths our minds will go to survive. Brand adds some nice comedy as the gruff straight man to kooks like Robert Loggia‘s Lt. Bennish (who sings in black-face and believes he’s on Venus) and Moses Gunn‘s Maj. Nammack (who tries to get cast in Hamlet as Superman); Wilson dives into his broken soul lashing out in desperation; and Keach is great as a stoic shell hiding a secret (even if it’s perhaps too forced and mechanical at the start). But the performer that shines above the rest is Flanders. He’s the most complex character of them all and the only one who knows everyone’s truth.
Sadly the copy I watched was a bastardization of Blatty’s visual scope—something even its strongest detractors admire. The 4:3 cropping was so bad on MUBI’s print that the iconic image of a crucifixion on the moon was excised for a close-up of an astronaut reaching towards nothing. I don’t know what else was chopped away but a lot was compressed (many moments that are obviously widescreen squeezed into full-screen). Would seeing it in its full glory have allowed a greater impact? Probably. My biggest issue with the film was the editing and its unnecessarily quick cuts to reaction shots during some conversations. This could be a product of the crop not fitting both characters in frame or a telltale sign of Blatty’s inexperience in the editing room.
Either way, you have to give it to him for having the guts to get this thing made as he envisioned (or at least to the best of his abilities). No one wanted the script and those that did put it into turnaround. Blatty eventually sold off properties to raise a couple million that he then combined with another couple from Pepsi (some product placement can be seen with a vending machine about halfway through). As long as he agreed to shoot in Hungary, Pepsi gave him full control. So he swung for the fences and delivered this introspective journey of lost souls seeking salvation from a world that asked too much. There was laugh-out-loud comedy, awe-inspiring dream sequences, dramatic gravitas, and ultimately a message of hope.