The Ninth Configuration
|The Ninth Configuration|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||William Peter Blatty|
|Produced by||William Peter Blatty|
|Written by||William Peter Blatty|
|Based on||The Novel The Ninth Configuration
by William Peter Blatty
|Music by||Barry De Vorzon|
|Distributed by||Lorimar (U.S.)
|February 29, 1980|
The Ninth Configuration (also known as Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane) is a 1980 American film directed by William Peter Blatty. It is based on Blatty's novel The Ninth Configuration (1978), which was itself a reworking of an earlier version of the novel, first published in 1966 as Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane!. The initial 1966 publication of the novel featured an exclamation mark at the end of the title, while all subsequent publications saw it removed.
The first half of the film has the predominant tone and style of a comic farce. In the second half, the film becomes darker as it delves deeper into its central issues of human suffering, sacrifice and faith. The film also frequently blurs the line between the sane and insane.
Sometime in the 1970s, "toward the end of the War in Vietnam", a large castle is used by the US Government as an insane asylum for military personnel. Among the many patients there is a former astronaut, Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), who aborted a moon launch and was dragged screaming from the capsule, suffering from an apparent mental breakdown.
Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), a former member of a United States Marine Corps special unit, arrives at the castle to take over the treatment of the patients. He meets Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders), who helps Kane acclimate himself to the eccentricities of the patients. Kane pays special attention to Cutshaw, repeatedly asking him why he did not want to go to the moon. Cutshaw refuses to answer but instead gives him a St. Christopher medal.
Kane falls asleep in his office and has a nightmare. When recounting it, he explains to Fell that they are the nightmares of his brother Vincent, a former patient and murderer who is now dead. Later, Cutshaw talks with another patient about Kane. Cutshaw suspects that Kane is crazy himself. He asserts that psychiatrists often go crazy and have the highest suicide rate of any profession.
Cutshaw talks with Kane again, and they debate God and the idea that there is a divine plan. Kane, who believes that the existence of a God is far more likely than humanity's having emerged from "random chance", argues that deeds of pure self-sacrifice are proof of human goodness, which can only be explained by divine purpose. Cutshaw demands that Kane recall one concrete example of pure self-sacrifice from his personal experience; Kane is unable. Kane takes Cutshaw to a church service, which Cutshaw interrupts with several outbursts, and Kane momentarily hallucinates. After returning to the castle, Cutshaw thanks Kane and asks him to send him a sign as proof of an afterlife should Kane die first. Kane promises to try.
When Kane meets with a new patient, the patient calls him "Killer Kane", and Kane flashes back to Vietnam, where he has decapitated a young boy. The soldier urges Kane to leave, and he screams. In the present, Kane collapses, unconscious. Fell explains to the staff that Kane is Vincent "Killer" Kane and suffered a breakdown in Vietnam. When Fell, who is Kane's brother Hudson, was dispatched back to America, Kane received the dispatch by accident. Kane created a new persona for himself – a healer, like his brother. Subconsciously hoping to heal people to make up for his "murders", Kane returned to the US as his brother. Realizing Kane's mental state, the Army psychiatric staff maintained the charade and sent him to Fell's hospital under the pretext of being its commanding officer. In reality, Fell has been the commanding officer all along. Kane awakens and remembers nothing of the incident.
Cutshaw escapes the castle and visits a bar. A biker gang recognizes Cutshaw from news reports and brutalize him. A waitress contacts the hospital, and Kane arrives to retrieve him. Kane humbles himself to the bikers to extricate Cutshaw, but the bikers are disgusted by his behavior. The gang attempt to rape Cutshaw. Kane snaps and kills most of the bikers with his bare hands.
Kane and Cutshaw return to the castle, and the police arrive to arrest Kane for the murders at the bar. Cutshaw visits Kane, who has wrapped himself in a blanket. Dreamy and distant, Kane disjointedly mumbles to Cutshaw about God and proof of human goodness before passing out. As Cutshaw leaves, Kane's hand emerges from his blankets and drops a bloody knife. Outside Kane's room, Cutshaw notices a spot of blood on his shoe. Rushing back in, Cutshaw discovers that Kane committed suicide to provide proof of human goodness.
Some time later, Cutshaw has returned to uniform and visits the now-abandoned castle. After reading a note left by Kane which expresses hope that his sacrifice will shock Cutshaw back to sanity, Cutshaw finds a Saint Christopher's medal has somehow appeared in his car. He turns it over to confirm whether it was the one he gave to Kane and silently rejoices at what he sees.
William Peter Blatty's novel Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane was first published in 1966. Blatty said, "I considered it a comic novel, but a great deal of philosophy and theology crept into it. But the farcical elements outweighed the serious elements." Blatty adapted the novel into a screenplay, and intended for it to be filmed by William Friedkin. Blatty said that the script "was what you might call bizarre material. I had hoped to direct it myself. But after seeing The Night They Raided Minsky's I thought the script would be safe with Friedkin. I sent it along to him. He liked it. But we couldn't find a studio that liked it." Blatty and Friedkin would later collaborate on the film version of The Exorcist (1973), with Blatty as screenwriter/producer and Friedkin as director, before Blatty returned to Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane. In lieu of filming the novel, Blatty decided to rewrite it: "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." The rewritten version of Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane was published in 1978 under the title The Ninth Configuration. Blatty has said that he prefers the first version of the book to the second: "the first one is infinitely funnier and wilder, and stranger and more of a one of a kind; the second one has the same plot, but the prose is more finely crafted, I think. In the first one I allowed the comedy to carry me, so I think I prefer that one...I loved the characters and it was a pleasure to write."
Blatty then developed The Ninth Configuration into a screenplay for Columbia Pictures (Blatty did not want to work with Warner Bros. as he had sued that studio over his proper share of profits from The Exorcist). Columbia then placed the screenplay in turnaround; Blatty took the script to Universal Pictures. Universal rejected it; according to Blatty, this was "not because of any consideration of quality, but simply because Columbia had let it go. There was nobody prepared to take a chance on their own judgement."
With no major film studio prepared to fund The Ninth Configuration, Blatty decided to raise the film's $4 million budget by putting up half the money himself, and persuading the PepsiCo conglomerate to provide the remaining $2 million. As writer/director of the film, Blatty was promised complete creative control over the production by PepsiCo with only one stipulation: that the film had to be shot in Hungary (PepsiCo had block funds in that country, and reinvested money from the film's production into a Pepsi bottling plant there). Ironically, Warner Bros. wound up initially releasing the film in selected markets, despite Blatty's misgivings.
Blatty retained Jason Miller, who had played Father Karras in The Exorcist, for The Ninth Configuration. Ed Flanders (once considered for the role of Karras in The Exorcist) was also cast; Michael Moriarty was set to play Captain Billy Cutshaw but dropped out of the production (he was replaced by Scott Wilson, who was originally cast in a different role). For the central role of Colonel Kane, Blatty cast Stacy Keach (another contender for the part of Father Karras in The Exorcist). Blatty had originally cast Nicol Williamson in the role of Kane, before deciding that the British actor was wrong for the part: "I was deluding myself. I so desperately admired [Williamson] and wanted him in my picture that I persuaded myself that he could be an American Marine corps colonel. I realised during rehearsals. He was magnificent, but there was no way he could be an American colonel. He came to Budapest and we rehearsed for two weeks. And we were coming up to the weekend before our first shoot on the following Monday, and then I remembered one of the people I'd strongly considered was Stacy Keach. And we found out that night that he was available and he was with us on Tuesday." Stacy Keach recalls the situation differently: "Ironically, I was the lucky benefactor of a Nicol tantrum in the late '70s. William Peter Blatty had cast him as Killer Kane in The Ninth Configuration (also known as Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane), and the film was being shot in Budapest, Hungary. Nicol was staying at the Budapest Hilton, and was allegedly trying to make an international phone call when, presumably, something the operator did or said infuriated him, causing him to rip the phone out of the wall and toss it through the plate-glass window of his suite. Nicol was fired, and I was hired to play the role. It was a great part, and I often reflected on how Nicol would have played certain moments during the filming. I have no doubts that he would have been brilliant, as he always was. We became friends for a time, and I loved his company."
Tom Atkins had a minor role in the film, and in an interview in January 2009, he discussed what the film shoot was like: "I have always believed that a movie about the making of that film would have been much better than the actual movie turned out to be. It was kind of a zoo from the very beginning. William Peter Blatty wrote and directed it and financed part of it by selling a home that he had in Malibu. His idea of getting a good ensemble effort from his actors was to take people over to Budapest for two months—the part I had might have taken two weeks in the States but he had us all over there for two months. All he ended up getting was 22 really upset, angry and drunk actors who had a lot of trouble showing up for work. I thought that the script was wonderful but I don’t think that Blatty ever got what he wanted up on the screen. I think a lot of us took the job because we would be able to go to Prague and Moscow and bounce around Europe when we weren’t working. He decided that he would put up the call sheet for the next day at midnight so that you couldn’t go anywhere."
Blatty himself appears briefly near the start of the film as a patient pretending to be an army doctor (he is the one who stole Ed Flanders' pants), and would later cast Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Scott Wilson, and Nicol Williamson in his next film as writer/director, The Exorcist III (1990).
Release and reception
The Ninth Configuration was not a commercial success upon its cinematic release in 1980; however, it received generally strong notices and a Best Picture nomination at the 1981 Golden Globe Awards. Although the film did not win, Blatty did win a Golden Globe for the film's screenplay. After initially poor box office returns in its test markets, Warner Bros. returned the film to Blatty and allowed him to take it to another distributor. United Film Distribution, affiliated with the United Artists theatre chain and best known for releasing George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, picked up the film and released it in other markets under the title Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane. Blatty initially sold the videocassette rights to New World Pictures, who released it on tape in 1988. Later on, Warner Bros. reacquired the U.S. rights to the film for all media, though their current DVD is basically a clone of the UK edition produced by independent distributor Blue Dolphin.
Leonard Maltin has described the movie as "hilarious yet thought-provoking, with endlessly quotable dialogue and an amazing barroom fight scene." Blatty's screenplay was later published in 2000 with commentary by English film critic Mark Kermode (Kermode also contributed to the audio commentary and featurette on the film's DVD release in 2002). Kermode has described The Ninth Configuration as "a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action. From exotically hallucinogenic visions of a lunar crucifixion to the claustrophobic realism of a bar-room brawl, via such twisted vignettes as Robert Loggia karaoking to Al Jolson and Moses Gunn in Superman drag, Blatty directs like a man with no understanding of, or interest in, the supposed limits of mainstream movie-making. The result is a work of matchless madness which divides audiences as spectacularly as the waves of the Red Sea, a cult classic that continues to provoke either apostolic devotion or baffled dismissal 20 years on."
Awards and nominations
- Golden Globe Awards
- Best Film - Drama - Nomination
- Best Supporting Actor - Scott Wilson - Nomination
- Best Screenplay - William Peter Blatty - WON
Several versions of The Ninth Configuration were released in cinemas and on video tape and DVD (one version retained the title Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane). In the original theatrical release and the Blatty-endorsed DVD, it is the intention that Kane killed himself with the knife. In some versions released during the intervening years, an alternate ending was used in which it is said (via added voiceover by Stacy Keach) that Kane died of wounds inflicted by the bikers.
- WATCHING BLATTY WILL A WINNER Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 11 Mar 1980: g6
- William Peter Blatty, cited in Bob McCabe, The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows (Omnibus Press, 1999), p.166
- William Peter Blatty, William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist: From Novel to Film (Bantam Books, 1974), p.39
- William Peter Blatty, cited in Bob McCabe, The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows (Omnibus Press, 1999), p.166, 168
- Bob McCabe, The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows (Omnibus Press, 1999), p.168
- William Peter Blatty, cited in Bob McCabe, The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows (Omnibus Press, 1999), p.169
- Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s 2009 Movie Guide (Plume, 2008) p.991
- The Ninth Configuration - USA 1979, Reviewed by Mark Kermode, British Film Institute - Sight and Sound, July 1999 issue