Despite the fact that The Ninth Configuration contains scenes of a lunar crucifixion (two words that bond so effortlessly together that you are surprised about the lack of lunar crucifixions in your life) and a man attempting to adapt Shakespeare for dogs, the production of the film itself is almost as wild and peculiar as these images of insanity. Director William Peter Blatty, who you might recognise as the author of The Exorcist, based the script on his own novel and funded half the $4 million budget himself whilst convincing PepsiCo to put up the other half. Due to their involvement, Blatty was forced to film in Hungary (where PepsiCo were building a bottling plant) and ended up with “22 really upset, angry and drunk actors who had trouble showing up for work”. Yet from all this madness came one of the most esoteric, genre bending films of the late New Hollywood.
The story concerns a Vietnam veteran named Kane who is sent to a disconcerting yet beautiful castle that dominates an unnamed countryside somewhere in rural America. This formidable building is now being used as a psychiatric hospital for military personnel and Kane has arrived to take over the treatment of its patients whilst still overcoming his own post traumatic stress suffered in the war. The men here may be truly or erroneously struggling with many different forms of insanity; from Cutshaw, the astronaut who sabotaged a moon launch, to Reno, the aforementioned dramatist who earnestly believes his canine version of Hamlet will take the world by storm. Hallucinations and phantasmagoria are treated with the same respect as reality in this American stronghold and the blurring of these lines haunt each and every inhabitant within its recesses.
The strengths of The Ninth Configuration (also known as Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane, a wackier and more suitable title) are numerous and fascinating. First off, the majority of the performances are scene-chewing, chest-thumping and full of unbridled pseudo masculinity, a staple of the New Hollywood. This means there is a genuine tension permeating through the walls of the castle and every scene feels as if it is on a knife-edge somewhere between horror and kitsch. Arguments are commonplace and centre on the most alien of subjects. It is only Stacy Keach in his role as the troubled Kane, who purposefully (and unnervingly) subdues his performance, letting everybody else pulsate around him, making it all the more effective when he does snap or explode at those who force him to confront his past. It is worth watching alone for the film’s climactic diner scene alone, which forms the apotheosis of Keach’s taught character.
You could watch this film a thousand times and never really get a grip on the tone that Blatty was attempting to achieve. He goes a long way to creating a persistent gloom with the exterior shots of the fog-shrouded castle and the smart, even-toned textures of the interior. One of his characters even remarks at the start as a warm rain pours over him, “there’s no colour in the air”. Yet even the most atmospheric of scenes are imbued with a comedic grace as characters spit barbed one-liners at each other and bounce (or fly in some cases) off the walls like characters plucked from Terry Gilliam’s gesticulating imagination. Hopeful pop music plays over the starting credits but we soon find ourselves introduced to men who have given up or have forgotten how to make that choice, opting instead to focus on the greater mysteries that life confronts us with.
This disconnected tonal imbalance ends up distracting from Blatty’s ultimate purpose for making the film, which lies somewhere between exploring the sacrifice that comes with redemption and the dangerous path taken when searching for a spiritual enlightenment. The Ninth Configuration is an often cacophonous sermon that Blatty seems to believe culminates with a sense of rapture but some will see as a depressing footnote of the Vietnam War. Whilst not always comfortable viewing, there is a belief from everybody involved that what they are making is necessary viewing, a belief that is lacking in more contemporary fare. It wouldn’t be surprising if, with this new Blu-ray release from Second Sight, The Ninth Configuration grew ever further in its status as a cult triumph.
The Ninth Configuration is out now on Blu-ray and DVD through Second Sight films. More information on this release, as well as others, can be found here – http://www.secondsightfilms.co.uk/