The film takes place in a castle transported to the Pacific Northwest and used as a military insane asylum. Stacy Keach plays a psychiatrist colonel who is assigned to take over the asylum. He arrives to find an unforgettable cast of mentally ill played by a magnificent cast of actors. First among them is a former astronaut who aborted his moon mission and lost his mind. The report of his meltdown is priceless: "Two days prior to his scheduled space shot, subject officer, while dining on the base, was observed to pick up a plastic ketchup bottle, squeeze a thin red line across his throat and then to stagger and to fall very heavily across a table (then being occupied by the director of the National Space Administration) gurgling 'Don't order the swordfish!'" Said nutty astronaut Cutshaw is magnificently played by Scott Wilson (from "In Cold Blood") who invests his performance with amazing depth. The quality of Wilson's performance is very important because the role (and the entire film) would have fallen apart without it. Keach's performance in "The Ninth Configuration" is also the best I've ever seen him give.
The rest of the cast is also pretty much perfect. Superb yet tragic actor Ed Flanders (best known for "St. Elsewhere") is alternately hilarious and touching as the asylum's medical doctor who spends the entire first act without his pants (they were stolen from him and all his other pants are at the cleaners). Jason Miller (Father Karras from "The Exorcist") plays a mentally ill inmate whose mission in life is to translate Shakespeare for dogs. Miller is hysterically funny as well -- mainly because he plays it perfectly straight without even a hint of a tongue in cheek. In fact, everybody plays it completely straight -- which makes it even funnier. Real life World War II highly decorated war hero Neville Brand plays the humourless, put upon guard Major Groper. The rest of the cast is rounded out with a plethora of terrific character actors. George DiCenzo (who played Captain Lou Albano) is Captain Fairbanks. Moses Gunn (memorably threatening in "Shaft") as Major Nammack thinks he's Superman. Robert Loggia plays the insane Lt. Bennish who thinks he's actually on the planet Venus and sings Al Jolson tunes in blackface. Alejandro Rey (from the episode "La Strega" in Boris Karloff's Thriller TV series) as an insane painter. Tom Atkins (Nick Castle from John Carpenter's "The Fog") as guard Sgt. Krebs. The movie features an embarrassment of riches as far as casting is concerned.
Once Stacey Keach's colonel takes over the asylum, he institutes some novel techniques of running the place; this is in order to indulge the inmates so they will hopefully get better. Throughout the film, Scott Wilson engages Stacey Keach in multiple discussions which seem merely comical and insane but later turn out to be extremely relevant religious debates. Wilson's character eventually takes off in a car to a local dive bar and gets into a scuffle with a biker gang. This scene has been rightly noted for the incredible buildup of suspense and threat. Keach arrives to find Wilson being humiliated by the bikers and soon finds himself in the same position. It's after this point that the real meat of the film is made clear and, in fact, the movie is even BETTER when watched a second time. And then, of course, there's that amazing scene featuring the crucifixion on the moon. . .
THE NINTH CONFIGURATION defies all efforts of categorization; which is precisely why it didn't make much of a splash in the theatre but only found it's extremely loyal cult following on video afterwards. However, the film did win a Golden Globe award for script and was nominated for best picture. Sadly, it was totally snubbed at the Oscars owing to a little petty Hollywood press hijinx. That's a real shame because, besides the script, there are masterful performances from Scott Wilson, Stacy Keach and Ed Flanders which should have been nominated at the very least. This is a film which some viewers (with the attention span of a gnat) may find perplexing. However, if you actually watch it instead of giving it side glances while playing a video game, the film is extremely watchable, often hilarious, sometimes touching, occasionally frightening and thought-provoking to the Nth degree. The film also rewards repeated viewings and becomes even better. And on one final note: No, Ilsa*, you don't have to buy the DVD from me.