Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Ninth Configuration

One of my favorite films of all time, William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration, is all but unheard of today even though it won a Golden Globe award for best screenplay in 1981 and was nominated for best picture.

And in fact, it's probably the ultimate Jeffrey Scott Holland picture - it takes place in a spooky castle in a remote setting (like The Shining), it's anti-psychiatry, anti-war, pro-spirituality, blurs the line between reality and hallucination, blurs the line between sanity and insanity, and has Shakespeare, Nazis, astronauts, bikers, people who obsessively communicate through quotes from films and literature, and people who may not be who they say they are. There's even an Al Jolson musical sequence, and a surrealist crucifixion on the Moon. Not to mention some brilliant Richard Condon-ish dialogue ("I am convinced that we can walk through walls. Not just me, but anyone - Cops. People. People in Nashville.")

The film takes place during the Vietnam War, in a castle in America's Pacific Northwest. The U.S. Government, convinced that the increasing number of soldiers who have seemingly gone insane in combat are faking, has secretly set up this location to study them. Also being kept here is a NASA astronaut named Cutshaw who had a nervous breakdown just before being sent on a manned Moon mission.

A mysterious military psychiatrist named Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), who is so soft-spoken it makes Rumble Fish's Motorcycle Boy sound like the Aflac Duck by comparison, arrives at the castle to try to sort out whether the men are faking. But we soon see that Kane himself is troubled by violent, bizarre nightmares. The inmates quickly catch on that something's not right with Kane ("I'm telling you he's like Gregory Peck in Spellbound!"), and in a bit of hammer-into-anvil they try to mess with his mind.

A patient, who runs a canine theatre company from inside the asylum, is producing Hamlet with an all-dog cast. In the midst of a rant about Hamlet to Col. Kane, he deliberately plants ideas in Kane's mind with a theory that Hamlet had to act crazy in order to keep from actually going crazy, as a way of letting off steam. (Cutshaw conspiratorially asks him later, "Did he buy it?" and he replies, "Hell, I bought it.") Kane, convinced that this Hamlet theory is the answer to the men's problems, encourages the asylum to descend into anarchy.

From there I'll lay off the plot spoilers. It's on youtube in its entirety, and I beseech ye to view it.

Interestingly, Blatty has stated that he considers The Ninth Configuration as a sequel to The Exorcist, and that the astronaut in that film who Regan warns, "You're going to die up there" is intended to be Cutshaw, foreshadowing his appearance in The Ninth Configuration. Presumably then, his irrational fear of going into space was triggered by Regan's warning.

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