Diary of a Cineater: ‘The Ninth Configuration’ (1980)

Some movie lovers can easily pick and choose what they want to consume when it comes to a film series. Not me. When I sit down to spend time with a series, as long as the first few installments interest me, I am in it for the long haul. Sometimes this results in what I like to call “cinemasochism”. Other times I end up finding a diamond in the rough. The only way to know for sure is to consume it all, tolerate the poison, and report back my findings. Now it’s time for you to sit back, relax, and let this Cineater imbibe whole franchises in order to sniff out which entries are actually worth your time. My latest subject: The Exorcist!

The Ninth Configuration (1980)

Directed by William Peter Blatty
Produced by William Peter Blatty
Screenplay by William Peter Blatty
Starring Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders, Jason Miller, Neville Brand, George DiCenzo, Moses Gunn, Robert Loggia, Alejandro Rey, Richard Lynch, Joe Spinell, Tom Atkins, and Steve Sandor

If you were an astronaut and a supposedly-possessed girl had told you that “you’re gonna die up there”, would you return to space after that? Would you take that risk? Would you shrug it off? Or might you have a nervous breakdown on the launch platform as you begin to think that maybe she’s right?

Normally when I come to a spin-off film like this in a series, I might say, “This is where things take a bit of a turn and start to open the concept of this franchise up a bit.” Saying something like that after already covering Exorcist II: The Heretic, however, seems silly to say the least. The Exorcist series is already a wild, unwieldy beast by this point, so adding a psychological drama into the mix isn’t all that strange by comparison.

There are no traditional demons on display in The Ninth Configuration. Instead of inhuman spirits, the horror here comes from within. Our illustrious cast of characters is predominantly comprised of soldiers who have mental problems and are residing in a remote castle run by the United States military. And what a cast of characters it is!

We’ve got the aforementioned astronaut, Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson). There’s Lt. Frankie Reno (Jason Miller), who…with the help of another patient (Joe Spinell)…is adapting Shakespeare for dogs. We’ve got Lt. Bennish (Robert Loggia), who likes to don blackface and pretend he is Al Jolson. Then there’s also Major Nammack (Moses Gunn), who thinks he is Superman.

On top of this motley crew, there’s any equally eclectic core staff comprised of the compassionate psychiatrist Colonel Richard Fell (Ed Flander) and the ever-angered Major Marvin Groper (Neville Brand). Not enough character actors for you? Well, you also get the likes of Tom Atkins, Richard Lynch, and George DiCenzo. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of accomplished performers and they are all bringing it every step of the way.

Into this melting pot of madness walks Colonel Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach). A former Marine, Kane is dedicated to helping these men throughout their rehabilitation, making himself available at all hours for their sorrows and concerns, as well as indulging them in their delusions. Kane knows what they are going through, as he too is suffering from extreme PTSD. So much so that Kane may well need them just as much as they need him.

Are clinically-sane people the best at rehabilitating the mental issues of others? Or does it take someone who is intimately familiar with those same issues to truly get through to them? Would such an unorthodox method pull them back from the brink or drive them further into madness? These might be odd questions, but they are also deeply intriguing ones.

Keeping to the subject of religion, in many ways, this is no different than if one were confessing to a priest. Would you feel more comfortable confessing to a “perfect”, undoubting priest? Or would you rather discuss your matters with one who is just as conflicted as you. Someone who can understand where you are coming from and who is less likely to judge you for your flaws. Someone who isn’t going to attack you (be it intentionally or not) for not conforming to what is “normal”.

Speaking of attacks, outside of the finale and the occasional flashback, this is not a very violent film. There’s no bile spewing or supernatural scarification. There are no demonic voices tossing out threats and vulgarities, although vulgarities are still uttered by many. Instead, we have a small group of very well-meaning men who have been stressed out a bit too much by society. Instead of driving them to violence, it has broken them, but their senses of humor and general decency have remained intact.

Arguments might spark from time to time, especially philosophical ones, but no one wants to hurt anybody. Instead, they just want to indulge in their offbeat creative passions and occasional roleplaying as they continue to work through their individual traumas. It’s honestly a very uplifting affair, even amidst its more harrowing moments.

That is not to say that the film is devoid of religious iconography or discussion. The presence (and especially absence) of God in these men’s lives is discussed throughout and Blatty still manages to work in some really trippy religious visuals. There’s one particular sequence set on the moon that is equally beautiful and terrifying in its crucifixion imagery. You can catch a look at it in the preview below, which I have presented in place of an actual trailer, as I couldn’t locate one.

This brings me to my next point: this film is unjustly forgotten. Unless you are a fan of Blatty’s or a completist in regards to any of the character actors within, it’s unlikely that you will often come across discussion of The Ninth Configuration. That’s a shame, because it’s a pretty damn good movie. So why has it been lost to time? I think it’s because it doesn’t fit neatly into any given box. This is a very actorly work, one filled with monologues and two-hander scenes that you would be more likely to come across in plays than on film.

It’s funny, it’s dramatically meaty, it’s heady, and it can even be thrilling. It’s also packed with great performances and some unforgettable images. And it also happens to be a forgotten spin-off of The Exorcist franchise. The Heretic showed us what happened to Regan MacNeil, Sharon Spencer, and (through her absence) Chris MacNeil in the wake of that initial possession. The Exorcist III, which I’ll get to next, shows us where Lt. Kinderman and Father Dyer end up. This shows us what happened to Billy Cutshaw after Regan’s ominous prediction. What a random connection! I’m glad it exists, however. All of these films are meditations on faith. It’s just that one of them happens to be devoid of demons and exorcisms.

A drama. A comedy. A psychological thriller. A spin-off. The Ninth Configuration is many things and all of those things are good. It’s not a horror movie, but it has a lot on its mind and much to offer to those who ever question their beliefs…be they religious beliefs or not.

Diary of a Cineater: The Exorcist
The Exorcist (1973)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
The Ninth Configuration (1980)
The Exorcist III (1990)
Dominion (2004)
Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
The Exorcist” (2016-2017)

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