Watch a cult classic #2: The Ninth Configuration

Our series on the weirder, wilder side of cinema continues with a look at the directorial debut of The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty.

The Ninth Configuration (1980)

Who directed it?

William Peter Blatty, the author and Oscar-winning screenwriter behind William Friedkin’s cult 1973 horror phenomenon The Exorcist. It was Blatty’s directorial debut, for which he also won a best screenplay award at the 1980 Golden Globes.

Who’s in it?

Stacy Keach stars as troubled US army psychiatrist Colonel Vincent Kane, while Scott Wilson is mesmerising as Captain Billy Cutshaw, a former astronaut suffering from a mental breakdown. Elsewhere, The Exorcist’s very own Father Karras, Jason Miller, is exquisitely bonkers as Lt Frankie Reno, an amateur playwright who adapts Shakespeare plays for dogs. Additionally, Blatty himself makes an appearance early in the film as the inscrutable Frome.

Poster for The Ninth Configuration (1980)

What’s it about?

Towards the end of the Vietnam war, Kane – a US Marine turned psychiatrist – is put in charge of a mental asylum, located at a remote gothic castle. Although his job is to find out whether the inmates are faking their madness to avoid combat, he soon finds himself fascinated by each and every one of them as he lets them act out their most outlandish fantasies.

Where did the idea come from?

The film is adapted from Blatty’s own 1978 novel of the same name, itself a rewritten version of his 1966 book Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane (which became an alternative title for the film in some territories).

Is it as scary as The Exorcist?

It’s not exactly a horror film in the classic sense, but The Ninth Configuration has a certain air of creepy otherworldliness at the heart of its story, which makes it much more unsettling and undeniably scarier than the average horror movie.

How seriously should we take this?

This theological, psychological thriller asks some deep philosophical questions about the existence of God and the afterlife, but its tone vacillates between serious metaphysical angst and wild anarchic comedy. It comes as no great surprise to discover that Blatty had in fact started his film career as a comedy writer, and notably co-wrote the script to 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, one of the funniest outings in the Pink Panther canon.

The Ninth Configuration (1980)

Does the style match up?

It does. Cinematographer Gerry Fisher injects the film with a deliciously off-kilter and sometimes unsettlingly creepy tone. Mixing religious iconography with madcap and ramshackle visuals, the result is eerily effective. Barry De Vorzon’s score adds just the right amount of mystery and creepiness to the proceedings.

Is it true that Pepsi funded it?

Yes. With no major film studio prepared to fund the film, Blatty put up half the money for the $4m budget himself. He then persuaded PepsiCo to provide the remaining $2m.

Did people like it?

Ever since its release in 1980, the film has divided audiences: some see it a masterpiece; others, not so much. Famously, writer and critic Mark Kermode cites The Ninth Configuration as one of his favourite films of all time, referring to it as “a work of matchless madness” and “one of the most genuinely bizarre offerings of modern American cinema”. As with The Exorcist, the good Doctor has been singing the film’s praises to anyone who would listen for years.

The Ninth Configuration (1980)

Does it still hold up?

The Ninth Configuration is as idiosyncratic today as it has ever has been, and perhaps more so now. In a world full of predictable cookie-cutter narratives and contrived ideas, Blatty has given us a film that asks timeless, universal questions about who we are and why we do the things we do. It’s clever, moving and its one-liners still land hilariously.

What should I watch next?

For more recent crazy shenanigans taking place in mental institutions, Martin Scorsese’s 2010 mystery thriller Shutter Island could be just what the doctor ordered. Alternatively, why not seek out Gore Verbinski’s 2016 flawed yet engaging psychological horror A Cure for Wellness, which is set in a mysterious and remote ‘wellness centre’ in the Swiss Alps.