Ninth Configuration, The (1980)

The Ninth Configuration (1980), written and directed by William Peter Blatty.


Who are you? You're too human to be human.

In a huge bizarre castle, the US Army keeps a mental hospital for soldiers and one astronaut. They are being studied as they are treated. The new commander (a great performance by Stacy Keach) is quietly very strange: so much so that the inmates begin to wonder about him. Are they actually in a new version of Spellbound (1945)? Why yes, they just might be. The plot keeps twisting.

This is one of the odder films I'd never seen before. Very rich cast. I had never paid much attention to Ed Flanders, but he is good as an Army shrink.

The front half is absurdly comic, although these are stage lunatics, tossing off (often limp) quips with perfect timing. It's a screenwriter's version of a funny looney bin. A good bit: the new commander lets the inmates stage The Great Escape (1963).

It becomes darker in the second half with serious discussions of evil and insanity. I think it goes off the rails in a long biker-bar scene of violence and degradation, building up to some revenge porn.

This sets up the muddled final act: the difference between sacrifice and suicide had been discussed earlier, but that distinction seems confused here. It's parallel to the end of Blatty's own The Exorcist (1973), when Fr Damien sacrifices himself to save Regan. Blatty insisted the priest was not committing suicide, he just needed to get the demon out of the house and the window was the only way.

Filmed in Hungary and Germany.

The DVD is poor quality 4:3 letterboxed and includes a commentary track of the director being interviewed as they watch the film.

Lots of great stories and tidbits about the cast. His wife ran off with his producer. Some of his remarks fly by me: what does it mean when he says "I was the Pia Zadora of Hollywood that year"?

Scorsese has said there are "movies" and "the movie business" and they are completely different things. I'm not sure Blatty is very strong in either aspect. In his commentary he references all sorts of obscurely symbolic bits I don't think most viewers would see (I didn't). He edited a large number of film variants -- I'm still not sure why -- and kept pulling it from his distributors when they displeased him.