The Ninth Configuration Review
William Peter Blatty has a strange but fascinating career: he has directed only two movie to date The Ninth Configuration (1980) and The Exorcist III (1990) and started his cinema career by writing screenplays for Blake Edwards’ comedies, notably A Shot in the Dark, the second, and for some, best movie in the Pink Panther series, or What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?. This section of his career, as well as his novelist career, was completely forgotten after the triumph of William Friedkin’s adaptation of his famous novel of the same name: The Exorcist. From this point, Blatty was only really expected to write horror screenplays without taking into consideration a wider talent and more profound obsessions.
The Ninth Configuration tells the story of an army psychiatrist (Stacy Keach, Fat City) who is posted to a secluded gothic castle housing a military asylum. With a reserved calm, he indulges the inmates’ delusions, in particular those of astronaut Captain Cutshaw (Scott Wilson, The Walking Dead), allowing them free rein to express their fantasies.
The Ninth Configuration is also an adaptation of Blatty’s novel Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer Kane’ which he considers as the second part of his ‘Faith trilogy’, and hence a direct sequel to The Exorcist; the novel deals with the existence of both Good and Evil, The Ninth Configuration deals with the mystery of Good, and the third novel, The Legion (adapted for the screen and directed by Blatty himself as The Exorciste III), deals with the human's punishment of Evil for original sin. Furthermore the character of Cutshaw is the same astronaut whom Regan predicts the death in The Exorcist).
This was not an easy movie to make for Blatty; the shooting had to be relocated to Eastern Europe to reduce costs, the original cinematographer, the late Wilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter) was replaced by Gerry Fisher The Offence, and the actors Keach and Wilson were last-minute replacements for Nicol Williamson (Excalibur) and Michael Moriarty (Pale Rider). Richard Pryor (Silver Streak) was also supposed to be in the movie and Blatty himself had to play one of the soldiers.
Furthermore, the movie was poorly marketed by Warner, advertising it as a The Exorcist type horror movie, not well received during test screenings, and Blatty had to edit several versions, one of which totaling 140 minutes. Despite all this, the movie won the Best Screenplay Golden Globe for Blatty against renowned movies like Raging Bull, The Elephant Man and that year’s winner Ordinary People.
It’s only after several years that The Ninth Configuration began to acquire a cult status primarily due to the fact that it doesn’t really belong to any genre: the main set clearly reminds gothic cinema but its atmosphere is more to be find between thriller, existential drama and comedy. This last aspect is the most disconcerting, even if closer to Blatty’s early cinema work, but it allows the director to create some hilarious scenes , especially the ones involving Jason Miller The Exorcist and Joe Spinell Maniac trying to make a version of Hamlet with dogs! Although seemingly gratuitous, these scenes actually intelligently mirror the plot of the The Ninth Configuration and cleverly balance the aspects of the movie related to Keach’s character. His austere interpretation, which clearly contrasts with the craziness of the inmates, is one of the most interesting elements of the movie and Keach, in one of his best roles, manages to project all the inners demons of the psychiatrist without overplaying it.
The Ninth Configuration is also fascinating in its reflexion about redemption and the existence of Good. With this thematic and the associated elements illustrating it in the movie, which I will not detail here as usual to avoid any spoilers, Blatty demonstrates an undeniable talent which might not have been evident from the early funny scenes of the movie but clearly explodes in an unforgettable ending, making The Ninth Configuration a striking example of what cinema should be: the vision of an author which can intelligently stimulate the ability of interpretation of the audience according to its own tastes.
The Ninth Configuration is released on blu-ray disc on 25 April by Second Sight. The British label continues to offer very strong discs to the UK market for movies which clearly deserve it. There are several versions of the movie but the one released here is the now common 118 minutes version.
The image of the disc is presented in an overall good looking 1080p transfer which respects the original 2.35:1 ratio of the movie. The image is not exempt of defaults and the quality varies significantly at the beginning of the movie, especially during the outdoor shots of the castle under the rain, but this is really due to the shooting limitations at the time. During the indoor scenes, which represent the vast majority of the movie, the image is very good especially in terms of colours and level of grain. I didn’t notice any major defects apart from some minor scratches. Overall, the disc provides a very good watching experience.
The only audio track presented on the disc is a very efficient LPCM Dual Mono English track which provides a very good balance between the enjoyable dialogues and the poignant music of Barry De Vorzon (The Warriors). I didn’t notice any audio defects on this track. Worth noted is also the absence of SDH English subtitles.
On the bonus side, the disc is packed full with extras covering all aspects of the movie and which have been taken both from previous editions and recorded for this new release.
The Writer/Producer/Director (16 min)
This is a very interesting and full of information new interview with Blatty, recorded for this release, in which the author discusses the source of the movie, his novel Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer Kane’, or actually the sources as the movie is also based on another more straight version of the book titled The Ninth Configuration. He also explains the issues with the original casting, his feelings about the wide variety of actors who ended up in the movie, and briefly discusses what inspired him the ending.
Confessions of Kane (14 min)
This is a great new interview, recorded for this release, with actor Stacy Keach in which he explains how he met Blatty for the first time at the time of casting The Exorcist, how he got involved in The Ninth Configuration by default, his approach to the role, Blatty’s directions, what the movie’s meaning is in his opinion, the other actors in the cast, the mix of genres in the movie, the location and his interpretation of the ending of the movie.
The debrief of Sgt. Christian (7 min)
This is a rather anecdotic new interview with actor Stephen Powers in which he discusses his (small) part in the movie, the other cast members, Blatty and the impact of the movie on his career.
Designing the configuration (11 min)
In this insightful new interview, production designer William Malley discusses the location of the shooting in Budapest, the design of the castle set (especially the painting) and of the moon set (Blatty’s interview pops up in this section!). Art director J. Dennis Washington then explains how he came to work on the movie after the departure of Malley and what his involvement was.
Killer on my mind (9 min)
In this new interview recorded for the disc, soundtrack composer Barry De Vorzon recalls working with his ‘buddy’ Blatty, his near-involvement on The Exorcist, his approach to the music of the The Ninth Configuration in line with the tones and emotions of the movie (especially its dark undercurrent), the choice of the introduction song (which he originally wrote for Rolling Thunder). We also get to see De Vorzon performing a piano version of it.
The party behind the curtain (14 min)
This is a featurette which did not appear in previous releases. It contains interviews taken from various sources documentaries with actors Tom Atkins, Jason Miller and Richard Lynch, and Blatty. The actors evoke their feelings towards the movie and their overall experience, and all provide funny anecdotes about the shooting. This is a cleverly edited extra which successfully demonstrates that it is possible to create worthwhile bonuses from seemingly unrelated sources.
Archive featurette with Mark Kermode (6 min)
This extra is part of the extras taken from the previous DVD release (and it shows). It features a younger Mark Kermode (filmed in a church!) and Blatty discussing (in the case of the first one in an irritatingly didactic manner) about the meaning of the movie and its place in the trilogy.
Outtakes & deleted scenes (20 min)
This extra was also taken from the previous release; this is an extensive collection of outtakes and deleted scenes, with various interests, presented in low quality resolution. Each scene, listed below, benefits from very insightful written introduction explaining the scenes and why they were removed from the final cut of the movie.
- Winged generals and crucified angels
- The outrageous Mr. Groper
- Everyone’s a fruit and nut cake
- Green soaked caterpillar torturing bastards
- Spinell goes to the dogs
- Kane’s great sacrifice
- Kane’s letter from beyond the grave
- Coming home
Commentary with William Peter Blatty and Mark Kermode
This commentary was recorded for the first UK DVD edition of the movie in 2002. It features Blatty and Kermode discussing all aspects of the movie, in particular the several versions edited by Blatty, the origins of the movie, the choice of the title song, the limitations of the shoot in Hungary, the choice of the actors, the thematic links between his movies, the sets, his researches on psychiatry, the argument between the existence of God and goodness, the actual castle, the explanation for the title of the movie, the unconscious vampire theme, the reasons behind the several versions of the movie and its chaotic release, and the different versions of the ending, etc. There are obviously several aspects that are redundant with the other bonuses presented on this new blu-ray disc but as far as audio commentaries go, this is a gold mine of information entirely justifying its inclusion.