in Review, Shocktober

The Ninth Configuration (1980)

We have a late substitution. Originally, I had planned to review the 1980 Australian film Harlequin today but it would appear the film has been removed from Shudder and off the face of the Earth. Luckily, I have a backup, the enigmatic 1980 thriller The Ninth Configuration written and directed by Exorcist scribe William Peter Blatty. Let this review also stand as a tribute to the star of The Ninth Configuration Scott Wilson who passed away four days ago at the age of 76. You may remember Wilson for his roles in the 1967 drama In Cold Blood and as Hershel Greene on The Walking Dead. Though after watching The Ninth Configuration. I believe this is the role Wilson should be remembered for.

The Ninth Configuration, based on the 1978 novel also by Blatty, is set at an asylum in the Pacific Northwest—that for some reason is a castle—used for treating former military and government personnel. In particular, new addition Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) who aborted a moon launch after suffering a full nervous breakdown. Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach) arrives to treat the patients yet there are whispers about his past—going crazy and killing men with his bare hands in Vietnam—that leaves the patients uneasy. Nonetheless, Kane makes an effort to reach out and be understanding of the patients.

Before I go any further I have to point out this cast. The Ninth Configuration is a murderer’s row of talented character actors. Hospital personnel includes Ed Flanders and Neville Brand and as the patients we have Robert Loggia, Tom Atkins, Moses Gunn, Joe Spinnell, and Jason Miller from The Exorcist. Each exhibits their own set of peculiarities and bizarre monologues and to top it off, the patients are planning on all dog version of Hamlet. Most of the film is made up of insane rants directed towards Kane and honestly, I don’t mind at all. Jason Miller and Scott Wilson, in particular, have the best moments going back and forth between dark, depressing, and hilarious ramblings.

The film takes a turn when we discover that Kane himself is also a patient. Like Shutter Island but better and is given the chance to pretend to be a psychiatrist to combat the violent killer within himself. If you guessed that Kane’s rage eventually surfaces, you guessed right. Yet even after this revelation Kane and Cutshaw form a bond. We learn that Cutshaw aborted his mission because he was afraid he would die on the moon and discover there is no god. I won’t spoil how Kane eventually helps Cutshaw get over his existential crisis but it is very sad and bloody.

Now that I’ve seen both of the film’s William Peter Blatty directed in his lifetime—the other being the solid sequel The Exorcist III—I’m disappointed Blatty didn’t direct more. We all know Blatty was great at character development and dialogue from The Exorcist but he had a sharp visual eye as well. The castle in the film is shot in a beautiful set of wides, always with a constant drizzle, and who could forget the film’s infamous dream shot of a man on the moon finding a crucified Christ. Tonally the film is a mix between dark comedy and thriller which Blatty handles well through strong characterization.

Blatty cared so much about this film he put up 2 million of the film’s budget himself. The rest was put up by none other than… Pepsi? The film was not a financial success but was well received critically nabbing three Golden Globe nominations for Best Film (Drama), Best Supporting Actor (Wilson), and Best Screenplay (Blatty) the last of which actually won. Yes, this script was considered by the Hollywood Foreign Press as a better script than The Elephant Man, Ordinary People, and Raging Bull. Yet it was nominated for no Oscars. Wilson should have been nominated for an Oscar. At least we will always have this film as a testament to him and the late Blatty’s immense talent.

RIP Scott Wilson