The Ninth Configuration (1980)

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“A new commanding officer arrives at a remote castle serving as an insane asylum for crazy and AWOL U.S. Army soldiers where he attempts to rehabilitate them by allowing them to live out their crazy fantasies while combating his own long-suppressed insanity.” — IMDb

The Ninth Configuration — also known as Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane — is one of the most mind-warping movies I’ve seen in a long time. Written and directed by the brilliant William Peter Blatty (and based on his 1978 novel), who you likely know from The Exorcist fame, it vacillates brilliantly between laugh-out-loud comedy and deep existential and religious examination.

It takes place in the Pacific Northwest (though was actually shot in Hungary) in a castle-turned-asylum used by the US government for military personnel. Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach) is the new psychiatrist assigned to treat the patients and, ultimately, figure out how many of them are truly mentally ill and how many are faking. Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders) is the doctor who helps him get acclimated, Billy Cutshaw (the incredible Scott Wilson) is the former astronaut who botched a moon launch due to his own nervous breakdown, and Lt. Frankie Reno (Jason Miller) is trying to stage a Shakespearean play cast by dogs. Blatty himself even makes an appearance as Lt. Fromme, who steals the medic’s clothes.

It’s almost too smart even for its own good. After the truly confusing opening scene set to Denny Brooks’ “San Antone”, we settle in for some genuine madness. You see shots of the castle set in the fog, in the waning daylight or pure darkness, and while it’s obvious we aren’t in the Pacific Northwest (or in the US at all), it lends an appropriately spooky, crazy setting for what’s going on inside.

Right away you feel disoriented, to a degree, not knowing for sure who is sane and who is insane. It feels as though everyone there is just free to say and do whatever their mind comes up with, and is that really, truly insane or is it just some kind of freedom most of us never enjoy? You have a feeling — or at least I did — about Colonel Kane as soon as he comes on board, wondering if he’s truly mentally fit for the duty he’s been handed. He’s quiet and patient with the men, but in an eerily detached and almost zombie-like way — as Cutshaw says to him at one point, “you’re too human to be human”. He decides to indulge the men — to let them take over the castle, in a way — and what was already madness descends into pure comedic chaos.

I found myself just scanning the screen, waiting for the next bit of hilarity, soaking in the dialogue… it’s quick, witty, and smart in the most cutting way. I feel like you could watch this movie 10 times and notice something new at every viewing. It’s amazing, really, that SO MUCH could be packed into a mere two hours. It’s worth giving this movie a shot JUST for the scene where Colonel Kane and Cutshaw debate the existence of God. The entire movie is highly centered around religion and the questioning of it, but this scene in particular is just in a league of its own.

When the twists arrive, they hit hard, and the story completely shifts gears. We soon find ourselves in a nearby bar with Cutshaw trying to drown his sorrows and the most ridiculous but awesome scene unfolds as Cutshaw is repeatedly prodded and taunted, and it only gets more tense when Kane arrives and they switch their attention to him, specifically Steve Sandor as the most absurd villain ever (just truly spiteful and mean, but then does a pretty impressive split at one point and just… I may have been clapping). You’re watching the scene thinking (or saying out loud, as I was), “He’s going to freak out on you guys. You DON’T EVEN KNOW the madness you’re about to unleash”… and then it’s unleashed and it is wild. One of the most intense bar fights I’ve ever seen. But I think an awesome one because it isn’t there solely for guts and glory, or for gore, or for us to see someone get their lights punched out. It’s another layer in an already complex relationship between Kane and Cutshaw.

And the ending… well, I won’t spoil it for you, but I think it summed things up quite nicely.

But really, for every bit of laughter this movie provides, it delivers tenfold in deeply relatable and thought-provoking dialogue. It’s sharply intelligent, well thought out, and crafted lovingly. The characters are intense and likeable despite their obvious struggles. A vastly underrated and under-recognized film, truly!

Rating: 8.5/10 | Director: William Peter Blatty | Writer: William Peter Blatty | Music: Barry De Vorzon | Starring: Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Neville Brand, George DiCenzo, Moses Gunn, Robert Loggia, Joe Spinell, Alejandro Rey, Tom Atkins, Steve Sandor, Richard Lynch

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