As enigmatic as its title, William Peter Blatty's 'The Ninth Configuration' confounded critics and an indifferent public when it was released in 1980. Now that the film is out on Blu-ray, can a quality upgrade make what's actually going on in the film any clearer?
Author of 'The Exorcist' William Peter Blatty has long been a man steeped in concerns with religion, faith and man's place in the universe. His phenomenal world-wide success at writing about the Devil and the corrupting forces of evil was not, however, matched when he turned his attention the other side of the ideological coin.
In a remote castle somewhere in California, a military institution for men suffering with mental health issues has some unorthodox ways of dealing with patients. Most of the men are facing traumas following the war in Vietnam, whilst one is a famed astronaut (Scott Wilson) who abandoned his trip to the moon, terrified at the thought of dying alone. Into this literal madhouse, a new psychiatrist, (Stacy Keach) joins the medical doctor (Ed Flanders) and various military personnel to try to get to the root of the patients' issues. But, amidst situations like two of the inmates (a great double act from Jason Miller and horror stalwart Joe Spinell) mounting the works of Shakespeare for dogs, and various theological conversations about the possibility of God in a post-war world, not everything at the asylum is exactly as it seems.
Serving as author, screenwriter, actor and director for 'The Ninth Configuration', Blatty's strengths are also his weaknesses. The film is confusing, confounding, ridiculous and chaotic, as is reflected in the way it was made, with Blatty taking the entire crew to Budapest and creating a collective atmosphere allowing some of the actors to improvise and some to stay strictly to the script. Some of it makes very little sense. In tone, its first half is comedic, the atmosphere darkening as things take a more serious turn and the truth is revealed.At the same time, some of the film's strengths lie in the obvious fact that, as a director, Blatty didn't have clue what he was doing. The meandering is hypnotic, it looks astonishingly beautiful, expertly lit by Gerry Fisher, and the performances are wonderful, Stacy Keach managing the difficult job of portraying a man who can't express himself unless through rage. The final answer to the question, 'is there a God?' is beautifully handled and surprisingly moving.
'The Ninth Configuration' may have been ignored by audiences but it got some great reviews and even won a Golden Globe for its screenplay, but does this re-issue clarify it as an all but ignored classic, or is its mixed reception warranted? There's much to admire and it's certainly unlike almost anything else, the striking imagery and ambitious concept bringing rewards to the patient viewer but, in the end, does it offer meaning? Does it linger in the mind as other attempts at provocation do? Does it matter? For a film as individual as we are, that's entirely up to you.
THE NINTH CONFIGURATION / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: WILLIAM PETER BLATTY / SCREENPLAY: WILLIAM PETER BLATTY / STARRING: STACY KEACH, SCOTT WILSON, JASON MILLER, ED FLANDERS / RELEASE DATE: 25TH APRIL