So much of a film’s appeal seems dependent on the genre of which it is a part. A person who simply does not like a certain type of film is likely to make an assessment without even seeing it; conversely, one who is open to certain genres will likely give a film the benefit of the doubt and find some form of merit to behold. So, what does one do when a film defies categorization and encompasses more than one genre?
Of course, the argument can be made that many – if not all – films do that as that is simply part of the natural flow of life and reality. For instance, in a quintessential adventure film like Raiders of the Lost Ark there are a great many moments of romance, comedy, and horror. Hell, in every comedy, no matter how irreverent or outrageous, is a certain amount of romance and drama. But you, The Ninth Configuration, are something of a rarity in cinema: you begin as a farcical comedy with a slight philosophical or theological bent and gradually transform into a psychological thriller the likes of which I can truly say I’ve never seen anywhere else.
Written and directed by William Peter Blatty, based on his book, you’re about as far removed from the supernatural horror of his greatest known work, The Exorcist, although the astute viewer will be able to discern some connections between the two of you. These connections are thematically peripheral at best, but it all speaks to Blatty’s explorations of faith in the divine presence and the ever present struggle between good and evil.
However, it takes some time for this to really make itself known since your first hour is essentially, as stated, a farcical comedy about a group of veteran soldiers (and one would-be astronaut) who are institutionalized as the army sends in a new psychiatrist to determine if they are truly delusional or faking to avoid service. And what a comedy you are for this first hour.
Indeed, your varied and highly talented cast takes the comedy to brilliant theatrical and satirical heights. There is Robert Loggia’s brief appearances as a deranged lieutenant who in one instance insists that he is imprisoned by Venusians, singing and dancing in blackface in another, and wanting to “play Tinkerbell in drag in a fungoid production of Peter Pan.” There is Jason Miller (who viewers may recognize as Father Karras from The Exorcist) who is gloriously offbeat as he stages Shakespearean productions using dogs as actors. There are the self-acknowledged multiple personalities exhibited by George DiCenzo, whose almost menacing gaze adds an ironically humorous quality to his attempts to exorcise an uncooperative vending machine while dressed as “Sister Eve Black.” Even Neville Brand’s straight performance as the Major in charge of guard duty, presenting the drill sergeant archetype later made famous by R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket (not surprising given Brand’s own military history as one of the most decorated soldiers in WWII), or Ed Flanders’ exasperation at the lunacy on display add to the laughs.
But even amid the insanity, the centerpiece of your narrative is in the theological discussions between a delightfully neurotic Scott Wilson as an astronaut with a crisis of faith and the creepily reserved and pensive Stacy Keach as the psychiatrist who may in fact be as psychotic as the inmates he’s been sent to treat. It is because of the strength of your actors and your marvelous dialogue throughout and in the scenes between these two in particular that provide your emotional and spiritual core, arguing for the existence of good and evil with such logic and acumen that even the staunchest atheist will find merit. It is especially in Keach’s portrayal as Col. Kane that you shine as a work of cinema as his character presents a remarkably intelligent plot twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan envious. Aided by your fantastically subtle and tasteful lighting accentuating the depth of his own madness, his eyes glimmer with such intensity and in the few moments when he lets down his facade of calm, he goes from creepy to violent and back again so expertly that it’s a wonder how he wasn’t even considered for an Oscar.
As mentioned, you contain a rather intelligent plot twist, but unlike most films, you reveal your twist while still a significant distance from the end, allowing your tone to switch from comedic with few hints of foreboding to a full blown psychological drama that finally does away with the laughs and delves into the core of human nature, complete with one of the most violent bar fight sequences ever committed to celluloid as your climax. It sounds like a formula that simply shouldn’t work in cinema… but it does. This is primarily due to your writer; Blatty’s knack for not only exceptionally oblique and downright funny dialogue but also for theatrical and cinematic history, referencing classic films and even Shakespeare’s ultimate diatribes on madness (specifically those presented in Hamlet).
You, The Ninth Configuration, are truly one of cinema’s most underappreciated works, a true original standing in a class that is all your own. Sure, your film stock has the grain and grit of a battered old television production, and your editing – both visual and audio – is sketchy, but these qualities add to your charm and give you a sense of timelessness that separates you from your era. You’re not a typical film for any time period or any genre, and the fact that you work in virtually every one of your levels, including a very emotionally satisfying ending, makes you perhaps one of the best films that nobody has ever seen.