If you like movies, go watch THE NINTH CONFIGURATION. (It’s streaming on Prime.) I almost don’t want to say anything about it because it’s such a unique film. It’s brilliant and terrible and confused and purposeful. It’s a mess and it always knows what it is. Things happen that have no bearing on anything else, except to add to the gestalt of what writer/direct William Peter Blatty is going for, which is to keep you off-balanced and unnerved. NINTH is a film that revels in shifting moods. It’s got a bit of “M*A*S*H” in it’s DNA, a bit of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, a bit of “The Exorcist.” It takes place in the same universe as The Exorcist – the astronaut at the center of NINTH is the astronaut that Linda Blair tells, “You’re gonna die up there” before she wets the carpet. Near the start of NINTH, we see that astronaut refuse to launch into space and he ends up committed to an insane asylum.
The insane asylum is a castle in the American northwest, full of soldiers who may or may not be suffering mental health issues related to the Vietnam War. Into the midst of this strange cast in this strange location comes Colonel Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), and the film largely relies on the relationship between Kane and the astronaut, Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson). Kane is in charge of treatment and keeps asking Cutshaw why he doesn’t want to go to the moon. There’s a lot of ranting and raving from Cutshaw and a lot of intense placidity from Kane. We see glimpses from other soldiers but this is almost always done to tell us something about Kane or Cutshaw, and failing that, to add to the uneasy mood of the castle.
Like “The Shining”(released 3 months after this film), NINTH makes a bunch of stylistic choices to keep you on edge. But where “The Shining” is about a man falling down, NINTH is about trying to bring one back. This is a treatment facility, after all, and the film takes Cutshaw’s mental health seriously. (Which stands in contrast to some of the others.) He becomes the focus of Kane’s attention, to the point where it seems like this is the only reason Kane is here. As the film advances, the zaniness is toned down and the intensity of the Kane/Cutshaw relationship is turned up. There is a purposely uncomfortable scene in a bar where the two men face off against some Nazi bikers, and from this scene on, NINTH is seriously intense. So where “The Shining” is a descent into horror and insanity, NINTH is a rise into healing and sanity.
While it lacks The Shining’s impact, it’s no less ambitious. I don’t want to spoil what happens with Kane and Cutshaw because if you’re interested in this film, you deserve to see it unfold on its own, but I will say this is my favorite Stacy Keach performance and the film, for all of its “what was that?” moments and “what happened to?” questions, is something unique and powerful. The opening scene of the movie took me completely by surprise – shots of the castle beneath a nostalgic song that wasn’t anything at all like I was expecting. Imagine if “The Shining” had started with a bunch of soft focus, slow fades around the Overlook as James Taylor sang, “Going to Carolina” and you’ve got some idea of what it’s like. I watched NINTH a couple times, sometimes rewatching just a sequence or two, trying to figure out if I loved the movie or just the idea of the movie. It’s not a perfect film, but if you like movies, it’s a perfect way to spend a couple hours. Whether you love it or hate it, I do think you’ll appreciate what Blatty was trying to put up on the screen.