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Kwok Kuen Chan,
Tien Lung Chen
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. Written by
God a giant foot? 'Hamlet' acted by dogs? A soldier dressed as a nun exorcising a vending machine? You've seen nothing like this before!!!
William Peter Blatty will be better known to most as the writer of 'The Exorcist', and here he makes his sterling directorial debut with what is (once the abomination of 'The Exorcist 2' is exorcised) the spiritual sequel to that consummate horror. Having said that, lest the reader get the impression that you're in for more supernatural shenanigans (and pea soup) it should be said that this movie is a million miles away from the horror genre. What's more, 'The Ninth Configuration' is virtually unclassifiable as far as traditional genre categories go and will leave you reeling from the barrage of bizarre images, comedic one-liners, theological debates, and a bar room brawl to end them all!
William Peter Blatty wrote 'The Exorcist' as the first part of a trilogy of novels, the other installments being 'Twinkle twinkle killer Kane' and 'Legion'. 'Twinkle twinkle killer Kane' was adapted to the screen by Blatty as 'The Ninth Configuration' and where 'The Exorcist' explored the argument for the existence of God through the palpable presence of evil, 'The Ninth Configuration' continues the argument through exploring the presence of good in a universe purported by science to be empty, blindly deterministic, and amoral.
At the start of the film we are introduced to a motley band of members of the military who, in the course of the Vietnam War, have all suffered various kinds of mental breakdown and for their treatment have been sent to a reconstructed European castle in some remote American mountains (the film was actually shot in Hungary). Chief among these is the astronaut Capt. Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) whose illness is seen as somehow key in that it is clearly not feigned due to cowardice as he was never scheduled for combat. This introduction sets the tone for the first part of the film and the portrayal of mental illness is somewhat zany and comedic and continues as we are introduced to the other main character, the psychiatrist Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach). Col. Kane, with the support of fellow psychiatrist Col. Fell (Ed Flanders), then institutes an unorthodox treatment which indulges the fantasies of the inmates in an attempt to invoke a catharsis which is when all (comedic) hell breaks loose and it is against this anarchic backdrop that Cutshaw argues with Kane for the absurdity of believing in God in a world in which undue suffering proliferates.
The light-hearted whacky tone gives way in the second half as Kane and Cutshaw's arguments become more penetrating (although not completely, as Cutshaw's choice of wardrobe to a Christian Mass will testify!) and the climax of the film is a double-whammy of a plot reveal that casts the performance of Ed Flanders as Col. Fell in a pathos infused light (which can only be fully appreciated with repeat viewings), as well as a bar room fight that will have you stuck to your screen as the tension builds and builds to an explosive finale.
Unfortunately, owing to the fact that a theological tragi-comedy is not the stuff the popcorn and soda crowd really go for, 'The Ninth Configuration' has fallen into the "cult" film category, which is a shame as another film with as fine a plot carried off by as fine a cast (not to mention a wealth of quotable one-liners) you are unlikely to see. However, while the film clearly deserves wider recognition (especially given it's conceptual relationship to 'The Exorcist'), those that seek it out, or fortuitously stumble upon it , are in for a real treat!
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