THE NINTH CONFIGURATION: The Existential Horror Of Atheism

William Peter Blatty’s “Me Decade CALIGARI” has more on its mind than madness.

This month’s theme at BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH is “Mind Games” - films that deal with matters of the brain and the mind. Anecdotal: these monthly themes are great excuses to fill gaps, a catalyst to sit ourselves down and catch up on a classic film we’ve yet to see (it’s how I finally got around to The Lost Weekend and Wings earlier this year). So “Mind Games” was, I thought, the perfect motivation to finally watch William Peter Blatty’s 1980 film The Ninth Configuration, in which a military shrink takes over a psychiatric hospital and begins an unorthodox program to treat its patients. It's been cited as part of William Peter Blatty's Exorcist trilogy, and has become something of a legend, a neglected gem with a group of small but vocal champions, and a vaguely sinister-sounding title (its original title, Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane makes the film sound even more like a genre piece). Upon viewing it I was surprised to discover that, for all its trappings as a “Me Decade” version of The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari or Shock Corridor, The Ninth Configuration isn’t a horror film, and it isn't really about mental illness. It’s about faith vs. atheism, nothing less than the existence of God - themes a little bigger than just a madhouse yarn.

After an arty, hallucinogenic opening sequence set to Denny Brooks’ “San Antone” (used three years earlier in the opening titles of Rolling Thunder), Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach) arrives at a castle-turned-mental hospital to find a motley crew of soldiers, each acting out in various iterations of “textbook” insanity: Reno (Jason Miller) is trying to stage a production of Macbeth starring a cast of dogs; Fromme (writer/director Blatty) thinks he’s a doctor, not a patient; and Captain Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) is a disgraced astronaut who suffered a mental breakdown just before a scheduled launch, and is now making a holy terror of himself inside the castle/hospital. (It’s worth noting that, as far as Blatty is concerned, Cutshaw is the same astronaut seen in The Exorcist, told by little Regan “You’re gonna die up there.”) Kane’s colleague Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders) informs him that a large part of the hospital’s mission hinges on determining whether any of these men are faking it, a tactic that, we’re told, gained quite a bit of popularity during the Vietnam War. And indeed, various “crazy” turns from Robert Loggia, Alejandro Rey, and Joe Spinell make viewers wonder if it’s not in fact a castle full of Corporal Klingers, each bucking for their own Section 8.

Kane treats the men patiently and respectfully, with an eerie silence about him. He is, in turns, addressed and approached quietly and strangely by the guards (Tom Atkins, Neville Brand) and other personnel at the hospital, itself a rather striking, Gothic castle in the Pacific Northwest (the film was shot in Hungary; you’ve never seen Washington State look so Transylvanian). There’s something not quite right about the whole scenario, played to the absurd hilt by Blatty. When Kane begins a new treatment program of “indulging the men” (inspired by a rant from Reno about how Hamlet was a sane man pretending to be insane in order to keep himself from actually going mad), the end result looks very much like archetypal “inmates running the asylum” stuff.

Which, we come to learn, is actually the case (spoilers): Kane is not a doctor; he’s a patient. He's also the brother of Fell, the hospital’s real head. After committing some particularly brutal wartime atrocities in Vietnam, Kane’s mind has snapped, and a convoluted series of events have led him to believe he’s a psychiatrist. His brother decides to indulge the delusion in the hopes of saving his mind.

The film meanders quite a bit in the middle, making its way from broad comedy to real shouty Method Actor stuff, but at its core is an ongoing conversation between Kane and Cutshaw - a debate about the existence, or presence, or intentions of God in a world that offers Cutshaw absolutely no evidence of Him. Kane, revealed as a monster trying to forget he’s a monster, makes the case to Cutshaw that kindness and love are proof there is a God: "If we're nothing but atoms, molecular structures, no different in kind from this desk or that pen, then we ought to always be rushing irresistibly, blindly, towards serving our own selfish ends. So how is it that there is love in this world? I mean love as a God might love, and a man will give his life for another." The men's debate charges through the film, at times boiling over as each man makes their impassioned, desperate case. They both have a burning need to believe, but one can’t; and one can’t not.

Their discussion crescendos in a tearful speech by Cutshaw, in which he reveals the real reason for his meltdown on the launchpad. Overwhelmed by his own atheism, he became terrified at the notion of dying in space, alone - truly alone. It’s a moment other atheists can identify with: that instant, whenever it happened for you, in which you first became certain there is no God, no Heaven, no life beyond this one. The moment you were able to get a metaphysical glimpse behind the curtain of reality, and saw - and comprehended, for just an instant - nothingness. The terror behind that first-time realization is all-encompassing, and Scott Wilson, tears and sweat and spit spilling off him, conveys that terror perfectly.

Ultimately, via a moment of self-sacrifice after the most violent bar fight this side of a Roger Corman movie, Blatty comes down on the side of the angels. There must be a God, he insists, because love plays too big a role in driving human behavior, and love is too great and powerful to chalk up to a random, uncaring universe. Love is all Blatty needs. Whether or not you agree with his answer to “Is there a God?”, The Ninth Configuration - a singular mix of farce, psychodrama, and art-house drive-in flick - paints as authentic a picture of the question as I’ve ever seen.