Saturday, March 22, 2008

"POWERFUL DRUGS COULD BE INSINUATED INTO MY SOUP!" THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is not the film I expected. Written and directed by William Peter Blatty, the first 2/3rds of the film is a very sharp satirical comedy. However, underneath the asylum hijinx there is a very serious theme which doesn't become apparent until the completely serious final third of the movie. As in Blatty's novel "The Exorcist", "The Ninth Configuration" deals with religious faith. And in this film the question is none other than whether or not God exists. The feel of the first two-thirds is much like Catch-22 crossed with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. However, that's only the feel. The script is amazing with more quotable lines per square foot of celluloid than most any other movie. There is also a very real mystery at the heart of the film; a mystery which you're really not aware of until the final act.
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.

5 comments:

Ms. Henrietta Hudson said...

yay!!! i am so glad that you appreciated it as much as i did and do. the best was: "i think the end of the world just came for that bag of fritos i had in my pants pocket." & when loggia had his temper tantrum and screamed "give me back my flying belt, i want my flying belt!" so good. well, hopefully we can discuss this in detail next sunday. xoxo

Cerpts said...

You know, it was between the poison in the soup line and the fritos line and i went with the poisoned soup line to start off the blog.

And yes, we could very well discuss the film in detail. . .that is, if we're not too preoccupied with discussing the return of a certain long dormant radio program. . .

Cerpts said...

Although, if we're not too preoccupied to talk about the film I could ask you if you've seen all the outtake footage and the re-shot sequence and alternate endings. . .

Pax Romano said...

Well, I would be remiss If I did not mention that you used the "A" word several times in your review ... that said, I will forgive you (this one time).

Now, correct me if I am wrong, but isn't the astronaut from this supposed to be the same astronaut that little Regan uttered the infamous "You're gonna die up there" line to in The Exorcist?

Cerpts said...

My sincerest and humble apologies. See what happens when I don't have your elevating influence to prevent me from such lapses as the use of the word "amazing". I hope it doesn't happen again. Except when the word "amazing" should be used. I'm so ashamed.

And you know something...I believe Ms. Ilsa* told me something like that...about the astronaut Regan refers to is actually the same astronaut in The Ninth Configuration. I'm not sure. We'll have to ask the higher authority. Ms. Henrietta...???