A loving look at the cult film that wasn’t: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on William Peter Blatty’s underseen and underappreciated The Ninth Configuration, with some commentary from the director himself.
William Peter Blatty is a name associated most immediately with William Friedkin’s 1973 supernatural tour de force The Exorcist. Winning an Academy Award for the screenplay based on his novel, Blatty has been a central figure in The Exorcist story and a major part of that film’s phenomenal legacy. Yet while Friedkin’s iconic horror movie might have been one of the most defining Hollywood blockbusters of the seventies, for Blatty its origins were deeply personal: when he discovered the real life story of a 14-year-old boy from Maryland in 1949 who was identified as being a victim of demonic possession and then exorcised, the Catholic-educated Blatty found a way to explore the cracks in his own faith that appeared following the death of his mother. Whether the events that inspired The Exorcist were factual or not, the impact of this story was life-changing for Blatty in a number of significant, lasting ways.
In the mainstream film imagination, The Exorcist ‘brand’ is widely thought to have fizzled with John Boorman’s flop Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977 which, while admittedly uneven, contains moments of profound beauty and conceptual sophistication. The critical and commercial failure of that film meant 1990’s Exorcist III – with Jason Miller appearing again as Father Damien Karras, joined by George C. Scott and Brad Dourif – was seen as somehow a return to authenticity, marked as it was by Blatty’s presence as both director and writer (it was based on his 1983 novel Legion). Over recent years, Exorcist III has been championed by cult audiences as the hidden gem of the Exorcist franchise: with small blink-and-you’ll-miss it appearances from everyone from Fabio to Larry King to Samuel L. Jackson, Exorcist III also has the virtue of being absolutely terrifying. With moments foreshadowing everything from David Lynch’s Lost Highway to Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, Exorcist III is – in terms of pure genre mechanics – a superb horror film.
While Exorcist III has developed a reputation as almost a secret password into the domain of serious horror fandom, less well known is Blatty’s alternate exploration into the world of The Exorcist, his 1980 film The Ninth Configuration. Like both The Exorcist and Exorcist III, The Ninth Configuration began its life as a novel by Blatty. Before working together on The Exorcist, Blatty and Friedkin had considered bringing the former’s 1966 novel Twinkle Twinkle ‘Killer’ Kane to the screen. Following the success of the Linda Blair fronted supernatural masterpiece, in 1978 Blatty reworked this earlier novel into the script for The Ninth Configuration, which he himself directed two years later.
Following the experiences of a group of men in a military psychiatric institution, The Ninth Configuration begins as ex-Marine Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach) arrives to take charge of the isolated facility, which is housed in a gothic-style castle. His patients include Lt. Frankie Reno (Jason Miller) and astronaut Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson). While Miller of course played Father Karras in Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Reno is one of The Ninth Configuration‘s real joys, with Miller proving he is as strong a comic performer as he is one suited to darker material.
The character of Cutshaw draws another more direct link to the earlier Blatty-penned blockbuster: he is the same character that Reagan tells “you’re gonna die up there” at the party at her mother’s house, just as demonic possession begins to take control of her and provokes the spectacular action central to that film. Committed to the institution after he failed to follow through on a mission to the moon – exiting the capsule in a state of extreme nervous collapse – Cutshaw appears to have responded to Reagan’s earlier warning in The Exorcist. At one point of the film, he says:
“See the stars? So cold, so far, and so very lonely. Oh, so lonely. All that space… just… empty space. And so far from home. I’ve circled round and round this house, orbit after orbit. Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like never to stop, and circle alone up there forever. And what if I got there – got to the moon – and couldn’t get back? Sure, everyone dies, but I’m afraid to die alone, so far from home.”
The film in large part centres around the relationship between Cutshaw and Kane, the latter of whom, superficially at least, appears to be in charge. Initially quiet and non-judgmental in the face of the extreme behaviour of his patients, Kane’s particular interest in Cutshaw takes the shape of increasingly heated theological debates about God, evil and goodness, and revelations about Kane’s true identity culminate in an act of extreme violence that in turn leads to the ultimate expression of belief, sacrifice and the power of faith.
Blatty’s ability to adapt to fluctuating roles of director and writer manifests in The Ninth Configuration perhaps even more spectacularly than in Exorcist III. While not hamstrung by an overzealous loyalty to his original novel and script, in The Ninth Configuration there is a fluid, almost organic appreciation of the spectacle of language itself: dialogue bounces between Blatty’s remarkable cast in a manner reminiscent of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – if they were 1970s war veterans, that is. Blatty is more than aware of the reference: as the inpatients of the psychiatric hospital plan their own adaptation of Hamlet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get a shout out, as the gendering of the dogs cast to play them causes a dispute amongst the inmates. And, of course, the broader status of Hamlet’s mental state has a more direct pertinence to the plights of the hospitals patients.
The Ninth Configuration is drenched in this kind of intertextuality, and references fly in all directions; from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster to Vincent Van Gogh, from The Wizard of Oz to The Great Escape. On screen these references are intelligent and complex but for Blatty they were intuitive:
“These were never a part of a principle or plan, they simply sprang to mind – and almost automatically – from somewhere in my subconscious”.
Blatty’s ability to juggle this aspect with the darker core of the film is impressive; the film never loses its playfulness but it’s never smug, and the real trauma of returned soldiers is present in almost every scene. As both writer and director, Blatty’s achievements with The Ninth Configuration also exemplify the tendency towards oversimplification of auteur theory: credit for the entire Exorcist phenomenon is surely due as much to Blatty as it is to Friedkin. For Blatty himself, the lines between writer and director are thin, with him noting:
“Even from my earliest days as a screenwriter, I always ‘saw’ the scene I was painting, always ‘heard’ the dialogue”.
And like The Exorcist, Blatty refused to obscure his interest in religion, Christianity in particular. Cutshaw’s dream sequence provides one of the most powerful images in The Ninth Configuration, showing the astronaut standing on the moon next to an American flag while staring up at Jesus Christ crucified on a cross before him.
“The dream was meant to reflect how the astronaut Cutshaw looked desperately to Kane to save him from the terror of lack of a belief in God’s existence”, explains Blatty. “As he agonizes at one point, getting stranded on the Moon sans belief in a God would be the maximum terror of true aloneness”.
This sequence in particular reiterates Blatty’s abilities as both a great visual stylist as much as a great writer: what is communicated in this moment is, undoubtedly, one of the most poignant and enduring images from the entire film.
Despite its remarkable achievements, The Ninth Configuration has not readily appealed to genre fans like The Exorcist and Exorcist III. The reasons for this are perhaps obvious: The Ninth Configuration is less a straightforward horror film than it is a theological thriller, although it certainly circumnavigates around similar themes and concepts to its famous predecessor. Ultimately, The Ninth Configuration functions best when approached as a black comedy (the all-dog Shakespeare adaptations that run parallel to a loose, background re-enactment of the classic 1963 John Sturges’ film The Great Escape being a case in point). Like the best black comedy of this era – alongside another criminally neglected movie, Alan Arkin’s directorial effort Little Murders (1971), an adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s play of the same name – the humour works only because of its uncomfortable close proximity to a hideous, almost inconceivably grim reality. For Blatty, this was a conscious decision, and he was careful to not push the film too far in the comic direction, at the risk of losing a grip on what lies at the film’s core: trauma, war, faith and identity.
“Before starting to write the screenplay, I considered showing Kane subduing a gang of four bikers”, he says. “Thus, when Kane showed an almost inhuman tolerance for the antics and insults of the inmates, the entire first half of the screenplay would have been skewed toward comedy.” Even today, reflecting on the film thirty-five years after its release, Blatty believes he was wise to not have gone in that direction: “I’m glad I didn’t do that”.
The Ninth Configuration boasts a strong ensemble cast, but it is Blatty’s choice of leads that carry the material. Stacy Keach in particular gives what is arguably the strongest performance of his career, winning the role of Kane after missing out on playing Father Karras in The Exorcist to his co-star, Jason Miller. As Reno, Miller plays a very different character than the sombre, conflicted priest he made famous in Friedkin’s film, yet for those of us familiar with Friedkin’s earlier film, there is something warm and oddly comforting in seeing Miller – so permanently burned into our memory as Karras – laughing and happy (albeit, admittedly, demented).
Blatty considered casting legendary Joe Spinell (Rocky, Maniac, and Friedkin’s Cruising) in the role of Reno, but this did not effect the relationship between the two men: Spinell even has a small cameo in the film, knowingly blurring the character with his own notorious public persona in his appearance as “Lt. Spinell”. Blatty shared a remarkable anecdote about Miller and Spinell from the filming of The Ninth Configuration:
“One night in Budapest I was awakened at around 3 a.m. by Jason Miller and Spinell banging on my door”. He continued, “they reported their version of what started a bottle-throwing brawl in the fourth floor disco-tech of the Budapest Hilton, which was that the Nigerian Ambassador to Hungary had ‘pulled a knife on them’.”
Recalling the strong religious overtones of The Exorcist, Blatty has a long history of making the religious aspects of his stories not feel patronising or pushy. This, he contends, is due to his refusal to ‘dumb it down’, but rather to explore serious issues about faith and the things that can lead people to doubt. Says Blatty:
“I suspect that my ability to make arguments for God without sounding preachy is grounded in what was taught in Jesuit colleges in the forties, namely a second major in the intellectual defense of God’s existence in mandatory curses called Logic, Epistomology, Cosmology and Ontology. So with that sound intellectual defense of faith under my belt, I had no intellectual timidity or fear of mockery of it”.
The Ninth Configuration remains distinctly ‘Blattyesque’ because – like The Exorcist before it and Exorcist III after – faith lies at its heart.
“The film was meant to pose an argument for God’s existence,” says Blatty. Because of this, the film almost wasn’t made. He remembers, “I began writing it at Columbia Pictures for two producers who wanted fairly crude ‘booze and babes’ farce, as one of the once told me, but then as I strayed and began deepening the meaning of the script, I was fired”. Thankfully, funding came from an unexpected source that allowed the film to be completed: “The Pepsico Corporation co-financed the film with me so that they could gain one or two more Pepsi bottling plants in Budapest.”
Despite falling through the cracks of the mass popular film memory, The Ninth Configuration has still rightly made a mark on some impressive admirers. Clearly a strong influence on Martin Scorsese’s 2010 film Shutter Island, which borrows heavily from Blatty’s film in both theme, tone and structure; Paul Thomas Anderson has also listed it as one of his favourite films. Discussing a shared love with Mark Kermode for The Ninth Configuration in 2014, Anderson noted that a passion for a film like this is “more like a disease; you’re born with it, and that’s your lot.” The metaphor is an appropriate one: as cerebral as its script is, The Ninth Configuration sinks into your skin, digs into your bones. Unlike The Exorcist, it is not a film necessarily primed for mass appeal, but this is precisely its strength. It is, fittingly, a film with a fundamental faith in its own capacity for greatness.
The author would like to thank William Peter Blatty for taking time to speak to her about The Ninth Configuration, and to Lee Gambin for introducing us.