AKA TWINKLE TWINKLE “KILLER” KANE
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY, DVD AND DIGITAL: NOW, from SECOND SIGHT
RUNNING TIME: 118 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the 1970s, 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, who aborted a moon launch and was dragged screaming from the capsule, suffering from an apparent mental breakdown. Colonel Hudson Kane, a brilliant but unorthodox scientist, arrives to take over the place. He’s convinced that, if he can cure just one of the men, the example will lead to a cure for the rest, and decides to completely indulge the eccentric whims of his patients. He strikes up a rapport with Cutshaw, but Kane keeps suffering from nightmares his dead brother used to have, and Cutshaw suspects that Kane is crazy himself, asserting that psychiatrists often go mad and have the highest suicide rate of any profession….
Every now and again the film lover has the slightly debilitating experience of coming across a film he or she wants to like, and that maybe it’s a film that he or she should like, but comes away disappointed. A good example this year was High Rise. Being a big fan of its director, I wanted so much to love it, but came out underwhelmed and even a bit irritated, as much by myself as by the film. It was a similar thing with The Ninth Configuration, a film I’ve been wanting to see for a considerable amount of time, a film that I was so keen to watch, review and own that I specifically asked our Websmistress if I could review it rather than her. Coming across like a bonkers combination of M.A.S.H. and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, it has some moments, ideas and performances that are highly memorable, and really does attempt to make you think about a variety of things from the nature of insanity to whether mankind is fundamentally good or evil, but it’s also something of a mess, with far too much goofiness which did work at times for me but which ended up outstaying its welcome, and a second half which feels like it came from a totally different picture to the first. Of course the latter can work in films but I just feel that The Ninth Configuration would have worked much better with a tighter, more focused approach which would have given its basic story of faith, redemption and sacrifice more power. It’s still a very interesting film though, enough for me to still give it a reasonably positive rating even if I didn’t enjoy parts of it too much.
It began life as a 1966 novel by William Peter Blatty called Twinkle Twinkle “Killer” Kane. He adapted it into a screenplay, and William Friedkin was to direct, but no studio was interested. He later rewrote his novel and published the result as The Ninth Configuration in 1978. He managed to interest Columbia enough in a movie version to write another screenplay, but then Columbia put the script in ‘turnaround’, and again, no other studio wanted to do it. Blatty raised the $4 million budget by putting up half the money himself, and persuading the PepsiCo conglomerate to provide the remaining $2 million. He was promised complete creative control as long as he shot the film in Hungary where PepsiCo had block funds and could reinvest money from the film’s production into a Pepsi bottling plant there. Michael Moriarty was set to play Cutshaw but dropped out to be replaced by Scott Wilson, who was originally cast in a different role. Nicol Williamson was cast as Kane but, after ripping out a hotel room telephone during a tantrum, he was replaced by Stacy Keach at the last minute. Joe Spinell’s character of Spinell was added during shooting after Spinnell begged Blatty to be in the movie. After initially poor box office returns in its test markets, Warners returned the film to Blatty and allowed him to take it to another distributor. United Film Distribution, affiliated with the United Artists cinema chain, picked it up and released it in under the Twinkle Twinkle “Killer” Kane title, with eight mins were cut and the ending re-edited with a voiceover, though the film still did limited business.
A highly atmospheric opening, full of ominous mood, has a man waiting by a road barrier in the pouring rain. We pan up to his destination, a sinister castle [which in no way whatsoever seems American, but never mind] which is indistinct behind tree branches, then cut to a man in a room waiting by a window. After an aerial pan out from the castle [good cloud effects here], we cut back to the man, then the silhouette of a rocket taking off behind where the Moon suddenly looms in huge close-up! A narrator then sets the scene so much that for much of the film we are wondering if we are in agreement with the unofficial suggestion from the military that these men are putting on an elaborate act, a la Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H, in order to escape active duty. There’s Lieutenant Reno who is simultaneously rewriting and casting the works of Shakespeare for canine actors, Major Nammack who believes that he is Superman [and thinks that Julius Caesar would benefit from having the character inserted into it], Lieutenant Bennish who believes that he is a Space Marine being held captive by shape shifting Venusians, and so forth. Roll call involves performing group sing-a-longs, acting out a ‘famous lines from famous movies’ game and unleashing a barrage of nonsensical comments and insults at top speed.
All this is sometimes very amusing, almost Monty Python-esque, but there’s just too much time spent on showing how ‘funny’ these poor people are, to the point that it gets annoying and even a little offensive, and I wondered if the film was really going to get off the ground, especially when the story takes even more of a backseat to metaphysical discussions involving Cutshaw and Keach. Some of these exchanges are very memorable. “I don’t belong to the God-Is-Alive-But-Living-In-Argentina club,” Cutshaw announces. “But I believe in the Devil alright. And you know why? Because the prick keeps doing commercials!” A delicious bit of irony has Kane make his strongest case for man’s goodness while dressed in full Nazi regalia. The farcical nature of the first half eventually virtually gives way to a darker, more serious tone as the film delves deeper into matters like human suffering and faith….and a vicious bar-room brawl which really seems out of place. I’m not going to reveal the way the plot goes but it won’t surprise you much if you’ve seen a much more recent film which….well, I’m not going to tell you exactly what it is….but if you’ll like me you’ll soon realise that this latter picture is almost a un-credited remake of the former with perhaps less depth but with a stronger narrative and perhaps more entertainment value overall. However, one thing The Ninth Configuration has over the later film is a rather uplifting, life-affirming conclusion which touched me so much that I wished I’d enjoyed the rest of the film more, though I must have got involved in it on some level to get me so moved in the first place.
There are gems throughout this film, like a logical explanation of whether Hamlet is mad or sane – actually he’s on the edge of madness but is playing it up a bit to keep himself sane and from going totally mad because of what’s going on around him…which makes a whole lot of sense and certainly refers to whats’s going on in the movie. There are some stunning images, notably Jesus on the cross appearing during a Moon landing. There are interesting links to The Exorcist, which Blatty wrote the novel of and screenplay to, which are easily picked up on even if you’re not aware that the books of The Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration and Legion [which became Exorcist 3] form a kind of trilogy, though this film isn’t so much about good battling evil amidst mankind [though it’s certainly in there] and the testing of the faith of one religious person [which is also in there], as it is a look at one of the major conundrums of Christian faith [indeed most faiths] for non-believers ––the absurdity of believing in God in a world in which undue suffering occurs – plus the idea of beneficial self sacrifice. The Ninth Configuration is really quite a religious film but its themes are such that they can be of meaning to non-religious folk too and I’m not sure that Blatty, though obviously a religious person, is totally convinced about certain things. This all leaves you with a hell of a lot to chew on, but I still think that the film needed a considerable amount of fine tuning and that, for example, you could remove about half an hour from the first half and have a much more powerful, if far less humorous, movie.
The castle provides a splendidly Gothic setting for the mayhem and Blatty, who does a reasonably good job of direction considering it was his first movie [though he sometimes seems to let the film get away from him] enhances this by often cutting to the many gargoyles and creepy hooded figures inside it. Many of the cast are allowed to chew the scenery with unbridled zeal around two strong centres – Stacy Keach, who looks genuinely drained as Kane, and Ed Flanders as Col. Richard Fell, perhaps the only generally sane person in the place. I found myself often watching the reactions of his character and it’s a really clever, subtle performance that actually gives you clues about certain things if you observe closely. Barry de Vorzon’s score is very minimal but does give us a nicely melancholy main theme, rather like something John Barry would have written for the film but with darker shadings. Confounding and at times just plain annoying, The Ninth Configuration was overall a bit unsatisfying to me, largely because I feel that Blatty didn’t take the best approach for his story and exploration of the themes and ideas contained therein. I do feel, though, that it’s still a must see if you lean towards the ‘stranger’ side of things in your movie watching. And I still wonder if I was a little mad when I watched it for not quite ‘getting’ it or even appreciating it in the way the movie’s many fans obviously do [another reason for the fairly positive rating]….which is perhaps kind of appropriate. You may be reading another review of The Ninth Configuration in a year or so’s time in which I proclaim it one of the greatest movies ever.
Some of the opening outdoor shots are a little hazy [probably due to the way they were shot], but otherwise, aside from a few minor scratches, The Ninth Configuration looks excellent for the most part on Second Sight’s Blu-ray. The sound is mostly fine too though I found that some of the long sinister musical chords heard every now and again seemed ridiculously loud, so much so that I had to turn the volume down, then back up agan when the dialogue begun again. Second Sight appear to have ported over the special features from the Region ‘A’ Blu-ray which were on the 2002 DVD release, then added some extra interviews. I watched The Party Behind the Curtain, which tells of all the boozing that went on behind the camera, and it was most interesting. When I review a film, I usually just sample about 20 mins of a commentary to get the flavour, but Blatty’s track was so good that I ended up hearing more of it. It’s hugely informative and he seems really passionate about the film and proud of it, which it did deepen my understanding of it somewhat. He enticingly mentions an extra 20 mins which he wanted to add back in 2002 when the commentary was recorded, but sadly he never did.
*Audio Commentary by Writer / Director William Peter Blatty
*The Writer/Producer/Director – Interview With William Peter Blatty
*Confessions of Kane – Interview With Actor Stacy Keach
*The Debrief Of Sgt. Christian – Interview With Actor Stephen Powers
*Designing The Configuration – Interviews With Production Designer William Malley
and Art Director J. Dennis Washington
*Killer On My Mind – Interview With Soundtrack Composer Barry De Vorzon
*The Party Behind The Curtain – Interviews With Actors Tom Atkins, Jason Miller,
Richard Lynch and William Peter Blatty
*Mark Kermode Introduction
*Deleted Scenes and Outtakes