|'The reality which the inmates are trying to attain, for example, is located in an isolated Gothic mid-West, deliberately presented with roughly the same level of faintly ridiculous, unbelievable 'foreignness' as jungles which explode with fire.'|
A big fan of William Peter Blatty, Mark Kermode places Blatty's directorial debut, The Ninth Configuration in the extremely niche Theological Thriller genre, during an introduction to the film from 1980, available here as part of the extras.
In truth, the film plays for long stretches as an absurdist Vietnam War Drama, somewhere between M.A.S.H., Platoon and Monty Python. Early on we are told that one of the films two primary characters, Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), had abandoned his planned rocket launch to the moon because travelling there was 'naughty, impolite, uncouth and in any case, bad for his skin'. Cutshaw is one of the inmates at an asylum-like structure for mentally disturbed military personnel, which newly comes under the guidance of Colonel Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), introduced to us as an expert psychiatrist, there to help.
The first half of the film sees Blatty exploring the absurdist nature of War and post traumatic stress treatment. Allowed to indulge their behaviours in order to advance towards some sort of realisation of reality, the inmates embark upon everything from the tormenting of Sergeant Krebs (Tom Atkins) to attempting to stage a performance of Hamlet using only dogs as actors. It's fun, well scripted and presented in a way that leaves little doubt of the challenges for all characters present.
The reality which the inmates are trying to attain, for example, is located in an isolated Gothic mid-West, deliberately presented with roughly the same level of faintly ridiculous, unbelievable 'foreignness' as jungles which explode with fire. One of the taglines for the film (How do you fight a war called madness?) speaks to the direct and deliberate juxtaposition of the experimental and uncertain ways in which the conflict the soldiers have seen was conducted and in how their treatment is progressing.
The eventual reveal of a hidden part of the film towards the beginning of the final third shows just how much fun Blatty has been able to have with location and staging. The castle at times plays up the Horror veil of the story (watch for the looming shadow of Dracula, who occasionally seems to be everywhere). The dramatic nature of the architecture too also lends itself to the story. At one point the inmates are allowed to take part in a mass delusion that they are escaping from a POW camp, Kane dressing up in full Third Reich attire. If mental illness Dramas can sometimes seem too closeted in the minds of those they portray then Blatty frees this one through location choice alone. It's a lesson in how important setting can be for narrative.
Of course, ask Blatty and he will tell you that the film is about the question of whether God exists, something explored explicitly towards the end of the first act, when Cutshaw asks Kane and the two attempt to find proof of a selfless act. The conversation feels crammed in. It occurs just after Kane has given his interpretation of a Hamlet line reading for the dog performance and the two are equally as interesting; an odd thing if the former is Blatty's main aim.
As the film progresses, and the conversation becomes more drawn out, the points are made successfully and surprisingly. Perhaps it is just the cynic in me who expected this to be another film down on the existence of God, but actually at times Blatty seems to argue for it. The denouement, in a bar down the road from the asylum, again doesn't really fit with anything else, but it does serve the purpose of the points on offer and, if you want to read it as such, could even be seen as the culmination of a Romance-like relationship between Cutshaw and Kane.
Whatever your interpretation of that, and everything else here, the success of The Ninth Configuration is that it allows itself to be interpreted, whilst thoroughly entertaining - gleefully so in the first third. There is comment here on War, on mental illness and yes, on theology, there are echoes of the films above and also of more hearty offerings, such as 2001. But through all that it never feels as though you are being lectured on those subjects and only rarely does Blatty sacrifice narrative to make his points.
The Ninth Configuration is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 25th April 2016.