February 13, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Ninth Configuration (1980)

by Nick Schager

The Ninth Configuration [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Liza Johnson's vet-home-from-duty drama Return.]

Infused with an atonality that's responsible for both its uneasy power as well as considerable pretentiousness, 1980's The Ninth Configuration finds Exorcist author William Peter Blatty following up his horror classic with something decidedly more "serious": an adaptation of his own novel "Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane," which he wrote in 1966 and then rewrote in 1978 under this film's title. Here directing as well as scripting, Blatty jaggedly melds atmospheres with his tale of a remote Pacific Northwest castle that secretly houses army vets who've gone insane due to combat (or combat-anticipation) stress, delivering a mood that's part Catch-22 farcical, part haunted-house spooky. That latter mode is dominant early, as Blatty introduces his mist-enshrouded locale through aerial shots scored to the mismatched sound of Barry Devorzon's sweet "San Antone," and then delivers the haunting sight of a docked U.S. spaceship being dwarfed on the horizon by the ominously rising moon. "There's nothing up there!" screams terrified astronaut Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) as he's restrained by guards, a sentiment that will color the story's remainder, in which a collection of inmates rant and ramble about the castle with mannered Cuckoo's Nest-style craziness.

The Ninth Configuration

The asylum's traditional power-paradigm shifts upon the arrival of Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), a psychiatrist determined to investigate whether the inhabitants are faking their maladies. With haunted eyes and deliberate speech that implies buried psychological traumas, Kane is a question mark from the start, and one whose true nature is—cue every post-Sixth Sense thriller, including the remarkably similar Shutter Island—not difficult to ascertain, especially given that even Cutshaw wastes no time accusing the new doctor of being a loon. With Kane tricked into thinking a patient is the facility's clinician, and then real psychiatrist Col. Richard Fell (Ed Flanders) going about his daily business without pants, issues of reality and sanity prove immediately omnipresent, though The Ninth Configuration is initially less concerned with what-is-real conundrums than with reveling in its characters' pathological loopiness. That madness is augmented by Kane's desire to treat his charges via uninhibited role-playing, and extends from Reno (The Exorcist's Jason Miller), who's staging Julius Caesar with dogs, to Bennish (Robert Loggia), who wanders around in a spacesuit, to Nammack (Moses Gunn), who dons red-and-blue cape and tights in an effort to alter Bennish's Shakespeare production by assuming the role of Caesar's new savior, Superman.

The Ninth Configuration

Blatty's visual style is flat and pedestrian throughout, but his writing in these early passages has an off-the-wall gonzo spirit (as when Cutshaw randomly screams at Fell, "He treats crocodiles for acne!") that's intermittently bracing. The filmmaker, however, lets this zaniness slowly recede into the background as Kane becomes more integrated into the castle's operations, with humorless gravity soon becoming the overriding mood once Kane and Cutshaw engage in the film's centerpiece theological discussion over whether God exists and whether man is capable—as Kane believes and Cutshaw scoffs at—of pure self-sacrifice. Alongside flashbacks instigated by a run-in with a former platoon mate and traumatic dreams that Kane describes as those of "another man," this chat thrusts The Ninth Configuration into a new, less rewarding realm of self-seriousness. Before long, it's clear that [spoiler warning] Kane—who claims to have a notoriously murderous 'Nam vet brother known as Killer Kane—is in fact Killer Kane himself, having suppressed these wartime memories as a coping mechanism in a manner similar to Reno's interpretation of Hamlet, which is delivered in one of many moments in which Blatty italicizes his weighty interests with frustrating bluntness.

The Ninth Configuration

This revelation, amusingly foreshadowed by Reno's suspicious remark, "I'm telling you, he's Gregory Peck in Spellbound!", is so telegraphed from the start that it resounds with little impact. Still, Keach's performance has a disturbed intensity that turns Kane into something more than a gimmicky plot device—his far-off eyes (as if dreaming of things he can't quite remember) and deliberate, sleepwalky voice and comportment convey an internal and external disorientation that's far more evocative than the film's overt promotion of Christian benevolence and altruism. Whereas Blatty originally commingles space, science and spirituality in a stunning image of an astronaut discovering a giant crucifix on the moon's surface, his story finally answers its questions about God's existence via a gloppy coda that undercuts Kane's preceding, climactic act of sacrifice. The writer/director's graceless handling of his characters' crises, however, can't overshadow the magnetism of Keach's suppressed-torment turn, which like The Ninth Configuration as a whole, reaches its apex during a bar room scene in which Kane, determined to save Cutshaw from a gang of cartoonishly sadistic bikers, snaps—and snaps limbs—in a borderline-Incredible Hulk burst of murderous violence that doubles as a psychologically cleansing confrontation of his true self.

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Posted by ahillis at February 13, 2012 1:30 PM