May 21, 2014
Described by its writer/director William Peter Blatty as the true sequel to The Exorcist (1973), The Ninth Configuration (1980) aka Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane may not feature a demonically-possessed Lolita ravaging her naughty bits with a wooden crucifix, but it is certainly no less controversial as a work featuring Jolson-esque blackface minstrel shows, racially charged jokes, and arguably the most strangely uplifting suicide scene in cinema history. Although it is set in a real Gothic castle, makes multiple references to Bela Lugosi, and features Joe Spinell of Maniac (1980) fame, The Ninth Configuration features a hysterical hodgepodge of genre conventions and aesthetic styles and they rarely, if ever, resemble those from the horror genre, especially the rather limited subgenre The Exorcist belongs to, though the film evolves into a rather dark and foreboding work during the second half. Indeed, the film is a sequel to The Exorcist in the mainly philosophical/theological sense, as while the first film deals with themes surrounding the existence of good and evil, The Ninth Configuration deals with the mystery of god and good and whether either of them actually exist. Blatty's directorial debut is also connected to The Exorcist in that the character of astronaut Captain Cutshaw is in both films, with the character playing a central role in The Ninth Configuration as a somewhat nihilistic fellow who doubts the existence of god and genuine human goodness. A work that writer/director Blatty himself regards as superior to The Exorcist (Blatty had many disputes with director William Friedkin and Warner Brothers over this film) as his most prized and beloved personal creation, The Ninth Configuration is certainly a singular and underrated work that personifies what a cult film is, as a film made for the few as a somewhat esoteric piece of celluloid with multiple layers, hence why the work was a commercial failure of sorts, even though it received a Best Picture nomination at the 1981 Golden Globe Awards and would ultimately earn the writer/director a Golden Globe for his screenplay. Based on the director’s 1966 comical novel with philosophical/theological undertones, Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane, The Ninth Configuration was originally supposed to be directed by William Friedkin, but none of the studios where interested in the rather unconventional screenplay, so Blatty decided to work with The French Connection director on The Exorcist instead. Of course, The Exorcist was a big hit and it gave Blatty the opportunity to realize the film he originally wanted to make, but before that he revised Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane and republished it in 1978 under the title The Ninth Configuration, remarking, “After THE EXORCIST, I decided that I could develop the story a great deal. So I rewrote it and fleshed it out, Cutshaw became the astronaut in THE EXORCIST that Regan warns about going into outer space and fully developed the deeper implications and theological themes.” After failing to find a studio brave enough to take on such an insanely idiosyncratic work that would, at best, appeal to an extremely marginal audience, Blatty decided to put $2 million of his own money into the production, with PepsiCo conglomerate putting in $2 million more under the stipulation that the work be shot in Hungary (apparently, PepsiCo had block funds in that then-commie country and reinvested money from the film's production into a Pepsi bottling plant there). The most senselessly sardonic yet passionately philosophically serious film about a curious collection of eccentric soldiers occupying an ancient European castle since Sydney Pollack’s similarly underrated masterpiece Castle Keep (1969), The Ninth Configuration is a strangely hopeful work that, despite its dead serious moments of melancholy and themes of suicide, nihilism, neuroticism, and general mental illness, ultimately uplifts the viewer in the end, as a work of Gothic-metaphysical-slapstick-psychodrama of the anti-Freudian sort that manages to touch on virtually every single human emotion and condition in a fashion that does not betray the work’s overall message like one would expect from a typical phony Hollywood film. The Ninth Configuration also happens to feature what is probably the single greatest bar brawl scene in cinema history.
Due to an inexplicable amount of American soldiers suffering from psychosis during the Vietnam War, the U.S. government has setup a number of secret study centers/loony bins to experiment on the mental military men. Since the Vietnam War is an unpopular war, the government wants to find out if these soldiers are merely faking their mental illnesses or not. The eighteenth and final one of these hidden military mental hospitals is located at a large Gothic castle in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and a rather serious yet well meaning fellow named Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), who is a former member of a United States Marine Corps special unit, has been sent there to treat a dozen or so patients with an eclectic array of mental disturbances. Kane is a stone cold serious and somewhat humorless fellow who almost seems to take his job too seriously, sort of in the manner of a 'true believer' type. Like most psychiatrists, Kane also has his fair share of mental problems, as he always has debilitating nightmares when it rains involving the violent murder of a boy in Vietnam. The patients of the castle are ordered around by a somewhat cynical fellow with a less than impressive IQ named Major Groper (Neville Brand) who seems to detest the mentally challenged soldiers, especially due to their erratic behavior, which includes (but is certainly not limited to) urinating while saluting a commander and undermining their superior’s authority in rather wacky ways. Upon arriving at the castle, Colonel Kane is given a brief description of each soldier’s mental peculiarities by a mostly serious yet sometimes sarcastic fellow named Colonel Richard Fell (Ed Flanders). Most importantly, Kane learns about a special patient named Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) who, as an astronaut, abruptly aborted a mission to the moon during takeoff after suffering from a major mental breakdown of sorts. When Kane meets with Cutshaw, he asks him why he decided to abort his trip to the moon but the ex-astronaut evades the question and instead says weird and whimsical things like, “Show me a Catholic and I’ll show you a junky” and “The man in the moon tried to fuck my sister…The truth of the matter is…Custer..called Sitting Bull a spick,” though he gives the psychiatrist his coveted St. Christopher medal as a literal and figurative symbol of respect. That night, Kane suffers a horrible nightmare and tells Colonel Fell the next morning how his nightmares are really those of a former patient of his who cut off a goofy-looking Vietnamese boy's head with a wire-trap and killed another couple dozen people with his bare hands. Kane also reveals that the former patient in question is named Vincent "Killer" Kane and that he is his brother, though he is dead.
Meanwhile, a patient named Lieutenant Frankie Reno (Jason Miller), who is currently working on a version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet starring dogs instead of people, spots Colonel Kane staring into space in a seemingly psychosis-ridden state, so he tells Cutshaw and both mental patients conclude that the psychiatrist is crazy himself because, after all, shrinks are typically somewhat demented themselves and have the highest suicide rate of any profession. When Groper complains about having to wear a SS officer uniform during an experimental role-playing session where the psychiatrists portray Nazis and the patients pretend to be Allied prisoners of war, Kane flips out and yells at the Major like a mad man with a sort of venomous and seemingly murderous hatred, telling him he has to do what he is ordered to do and that if he tries to take off the aesthetically pleasing black uniform, he will “die in it.” Eventually, Kane and Cutshaw have a heated debate about the existence of god, with the former arguing that human goodness proves the existence of god, stating, “You’re convinced God is dead because there’s evil in the world? […] Then why don’t you think he is alive because of the goodness in the world?” At the end of their talk, Cutshaw asks Kane, “If you die first and there’s life after death, will you give me a sign?” and the Colonel agrees, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Cutshaw also asks Kane to take him to Catholic mass, which he does, and the astronaut seems to be getting better as a result of his new found religious devotion, as his neurotic behavior and wild outbursts begin to disappear, but that all changes when a new patient named Sergeant Gilman (Gordon Mark) arrives at the castle. When Gilman sees Kane, he recognizes him and calls him “Killer Kane,” thus causing the psychiatrist to have a flashback where he recollects decapitating a gook boy, which causes him to collapse and become unconscious, though when he wakes up, he has no recollection of the incident. Indeed, as Colonel Fell explains to his staff, Kane is indeed the infamous “Killer Kane” who killed the Vietnamese boy and a couple dozen other people, which ultimately led to him suffering a complete mental breakdown and the complete disintegration of his personality, at least the 'evil' part. Fell also reveals that he is really the crazed killer’s psychiatrist Hudson brother and that Kane was so overcome with guilt due to his murderous behavior that he “killed” the evil killer part of his identity and developed the psychiatrist persona of his brother, thereupon subconsciously convincing himself that by curing other mental patients he would be able to atone for the sins of his past. The Army psychiatric staff decided to allow Kane to carry on his charade, even though Fell is the one that has been in command all along, with a fellow named Sergeant Krebs (Tom Atkins) even acting as “Kane’s keeper.”
Naturally, Cutshaw freaks out upon discovering that Kane is really “Killer Kane” as he feels he has been lied to and betrayed, and thus goes AWOL and heads to a bar where a biker gang (played by a real Viennese biker gang) led by a dumb dude that sports eyeliner named Stanley (Steve Sandor) and his sadistic buddy Richard (played by Richard Lynch, who in 1967 while under the influence of drugs, decided to set himself on fire, thus resulting in burn marks on 70% of his body) begin tormenting him by using him as their own personal “beach ball” after recognizing him as the astronaut who was all over the media after aborting his mission to the moon. Eventually, a waitress becomes distressed by how the biker’s are treating Cutshaw, so she calls information, absurdly asking the operator, “Do you have a number for an asylum for marines or something?” Of course, when the psychiatrists get the call from the waitress about Cutshaw, Kane decides to head out to save him. When Kane gets there, the biker’s also degrade him, forcing him to say stupid things like “marines are chicken” and “marines all suck.” When biker Stanley forces Kane to lick beer off the floor, one of the biker bitches hilariously calls him a “chicken shit turd.” Of course, Kane’s inner “Killer Kane” finally comes out when he sees the bikers attempt to rape Cutshaw (with Richard attempting to force his prick in the astronaut’s mouth) and he beats and/or kills every single biker in the bar, including the biker sluts, in what is easily the greatest bar brawl scene in cinema history. Kane brings Cutshaw back to the castle and the ex-astronaut finally confesses that he aborted his space mission because he was afraid to die alone on the moon, complaining he would have been, “really, really alone.” Kane then promises Cutshaw, “I’ll show you god exists…one example…and the others [...] to cure...try to cure them too. I don’t know…no other way now.” Ultimately, Kane kills himself to prove “god exists” by giving Cutshaw one concrete example of genuine human goodness. Sometime in the near future, Cutshaw, who is now cured, revisits the castle and sits in Kane’s former office where he reads the following letter written to him by the Colonel just before he committed suicide: “Captain Cutshaw, I am taking my life in the hope that my death may provide a shock that has carried a value. In any case, you now have your one example. If ever I have injured you, I am sorry. I have been fond of you. I know someday I shall see you again.” After leaving the castle and returning to his car, Cutshaw notices the St. Christopher medal that he gave Kane is sitting on the car seat, so he breaks down and begins to sob. Indeed, Kane fulfilled his original promise to give Cutshaw a sign if there is life after death.
Interestingly, writer/director William Peter Blatty swears that the medal scene at the end of The Ninth Configuration was inspired by an event in his own life that occurred around the time his mother died and he had just started working on writing The Exorcist. Apparently, when Blatty’s mother died, he took off one of two medals that were on his mom’s corpse before she was buried, yet by some inexplicable miracle, he later noticed that he was wearing both medals, including the one that had supposedly been buried with his progenitor. As someone that is quite skeptical when it comes to anything and everything supernatural/spiritual, I find Blatty’s personal story dubious to say the least, yet I must admit the way the director incorporated the story into The Ninth Configuration is nothing short of ingenious and highly inspirational. Indeed, the film is like a spiritual work for hopeless cynics that knows when to joke about morally repugnant things, but also when to be uncomfortably serious in a cinematic work that is like Christ meets Kierkegaard meets vaudeville. Indeed, as a work that features Academy Award nominated actor Robert Loggia (Scarface, Jagged Edge) in blackface singing Al Jolson’s “Rainbow Around My Shoulder” while dancing around like a spastic retard on dope, actor/Dark Shadows producer George DiCenzo in nun-drag attempting in vain to give a Pepsi vending machine a half-assed exorcism, Shaft (1971) star Moses Gunn wearing a rather flamboyant superman outfit in assumed tribute to Nietzsche (the costume has an “N” on the chest instead of an “S”, not to mention the fact that the German philosopher’s ideas are expressed more than once during the film, albeit in a critical fashion), and featuring director Blatty himself in a cameo role as a perturbed patient with an unhealthy stethoscope fetish named Lt. Fromme, The Ninth Configuration is surely the most sardonic spiritual film ever made. As for the film’s depiction of psychiatrists and other ‘soul-doctors,’ Blatty had the following to say regarding psychoanalysis in the audio commentary for the Warner Brothers DVD release of the work: “It’s hardly a science […] at best, it’s an art and not a very convincing one, if you examine Freudian psychology.” Indeed, aside from the brief Jolson parody scene (which, more than anything, is really more an unflattering mockery of Yiddish vaudeville than an actual tribute), The Ninth Configuration is a rare American comedy that is not only kosher-free and lacks degenerate Freudian influences, but also has something serious to say and goes about expressing it in a truly transcendental way that proves that cinema can be used as something other than art or entertainment, though the film manages to succeed with both of those things as well. Part tragicomedic psychological thriller, part biker (anti)exploitation flick, part absurdist metaphysical Gothic melodrama, part schizophrenic giallo, and part politically incorrect surrealist psychodrama, The Ninth Configuration is indisputable proof that miracles can even happen in the uniquely unholy and spiritually vapid realm of Hebraic Hollywood.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 1:46 AM
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