Hey everybody. We're almost to Halloween, can you believe it? I'm gonna be unleashing all the rest of my horror movie musings and those of others on the big day tomorrow (er, later today), but for now, here's a guest spot from none other than my good friend Matthew Stechel on The Ninth Configuration.
The Ninth Configuration isn’t really a horror movie so much as a shaggy dog suspense film, but it was conceived as a horror film, marketed as a horror film, and is still to this day sold as a horror film. The cover for it promises terror while the back cover promises a resolution that will strike you like a thunderclap. (that’s actually what the back of the box says! “A thunderclap!”) Written and directed by Exorcist writer William Peter Bleatty, The Ninth Configuration (retitled from the wistful B movie title “Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane” which should give you a better approximation of what this movie was originally envisioned by Warner Bros execs as being like) is really more of a psychological horror film about a new major/psychiatrist being appointed a new position at what’s basically a VA hospital for Section 8 seeking combatants freshly home from Vietnam. That’s the premise at least—but really its basically what would happen if Robert Altman decided he wanted to try his hand at making a horror movie.
Its got a good number of Altman trademarks—including of course many sequences in which multiple characters with screws loose play off each other like some gleefully demented Abbot and Costello act, but it also has the washed out grubby look of some of Altman’s 70’s classics—pretty much any scene shot right outside the mental hospital that is the main setting for this film with its caked in mud walls reminded me a lot of the caked in mud everything of McCabe And Mrs. Miller. Of course this being a horror themed column I should probably get back to the why this is a horror movie or why its worth seeing aspects of this column. (Did I mention Robert Altman?.) In fact this movie has nothing to do with Altman, it was just in the watching of it that I was reminded a lot about how much that director had set the template for crazies co-existing together in a cramped setting genre. Yes, that’s not really a recognized genre but still you can’t help but recognize the heavy influence, given his work in the early to mid 70’s. and how this one was made in ’78 and finally came to screens in ’79 after the gigantic success of The Exorcist more or less guranteed carte blance for everyone behind the scenes.
Bleatty was a semi successful novelist who had written the original novel The Exorcist was based on and I suppose in hopes that lightning would strike twice Warner Bros was very much hoping to re team Bleatty on another adaptation of one of his novels with director William Friedkin, unfortunately Freidkin was off doing something else (it might have been Cruising given the years in question here) so Friedkin was off exploring other dark corners of the world to bring to the screen leaving Bleatty (or at least Bleatty’s agents) angling to direct the adaptation he had written himself. After some haggling Warner Bros execs agreed to let him direct (but not final cut—since there’s apparently been something three different cuts of the movie put out there over the years since its initial release). The result is an interesting if somewhat mixed 70’s experimental suspense film. The film definitely has its pluses. Its pretty well paced, there are some really memorable scenes scattered throughout (there’s a fight scene set in a biker bar fairly late in the film that really sets up the end of the movie quite nicely) there’s even an ongoing and rather solid argument both for the existence of and the case against God presented here. There are also lots of good one liners from the mental patients throughtout—there’s really quite a bit of those—which means you’re gonna have to keep your ears sharp more so then your eyes here. (of course the humor keeps you distracted from the heavier themes of insanity in the face of insanity, blah, blah, blah ala Mash again) There are two twists the film has up its sleeve and the film does deliver them with a good amount of showmanship.. Even if there’s a more than good chance you’ll have guessed the main one a good while before it arrives, I didn’t mind sticking with it just to see if there was anything past that but I fear that once that main twist arrives, it may be too late for most viewers to give it the green light to let it play on.. It doesn’t help that the main twist is somewhat telegraphed far in advance or that everyone who’s reading this has actually seen an M Night Shyamalan’s movie which this also quite resembles within its use of flashbacks to tell you how a traumatic time in the main character’s past informs his present situation only to end up with a not terribly inspired “twist” that seems less clever the more you think about it. The film does have a good turn from Stacey Keach as the new major/psychiatrist, and Scott Wilson as the God arguing inmate whom Keach takes a personal interest in rehabilitating. Robert Loggia appears briefly as an inmate. It also features the usual assortment of mental patients that you’d expect in a movie like this—patients with ailments of the cinematic and not just regular everyday kinda strange which depends on how you feel about movies set in mental hospitals. Personally this movie can’t compare to the best of that genre which remains “The Dream Team” with Michael Keaton (and not “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”).but it is a pretty good mental hospital movie overall especially capping the whole 70’s film auteur movement. This one also features a guy who tries to teach Shakespeare to dogs so how can you beat that? (Only by pitting him against another inmate who really wants to be in the play but only if he can play the part of Superman…“But in none of Shakespeare’s plays is there a part written for Superman!”) Again if you like Robert Altman—its worth a check out on Netflix—and that makes it completely relevant to Halloween of course movie box touting essential 1970’s style horror be damned!