"A metaphysical murder mystery, a gothic war movie and a cosmic love
story. You have never seen anything quite like it."
A failure in 1980, William Peter Blatty's underrated directorial debut has attained a cult status over the past 22 years. Now available on DVD domestically for the first time, The Ninth Configuration is a movie everyone should see at least once.
Facts of the Case
In the middle of the Pacific Northwest, an abandoned castle has been transformed into a military insane asylum. The patients are Vietnam veterans traumatized by the war. They are a strange assortment of characters (one of them desires to adapt Shakespeare's Hamlet for a canine cast!). In the hopes of curing them, Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach in a superb performance) is brought in as head psychiatrist. Kane devises unusual methods to treat his patients and they work on all except one—Capt. Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson). Cutshaw demands proof of the existence of God through one act of genuine selfless behavior. Kane says he can prove it, but at what price?
I usually don't begin reviews with a critical quote. I chose to this time because this film is tough to categorize. What exactly is The Ninth Configuration? I'm not sure. Parts of this film play as a comedy, particularly when Blatty lets us get acquainted with some of the inmates in this asylum. Part of the film is a mystery, such as when Cutshaw asks Kane to prove God exists. Another part is a war film, in flashbacks revealing Kane's tour of duty in Vietnam and the deep hurts he developed there.
What makes The Ninth Configuration a masterpiece is that Blatty has the courage to take his material as far as he does here. A lesser talent (an Akiva Goldsman, for example) would have just traveled down one thread of this story. Blatty performs a juggling act, mixing all these strands into one cohesive, bizarre, hilarious, moving, and incredible film.
In addition to writing wonderful dialogue, Blatty has assembled an all-star cast to star in his film. Besides Keach and Wilson, the picture also stars Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Robert Loggia, Moses Gunn, Joe Spinell, and Neville Brand (okay, maybe they're not stars, but any lover of movies will recognize these actors). It's a real treasure of ensemble acting, as every performance not only fulfills the purpose needed for each scene, but they all seem to be working off of each other. It's hard to describe, but the experience is unforgettable.
For the film's domestic DVD release, Warner Bros has taken the unusual step of licensing the entire contents of a Region 2 disc. Blue Dolphin Video previously issued this disc in England in 2001 and that disc was a special edition. Although not advertised as such here, all the content is identical.
The film is presented in a 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer. For a film that is 22 years old (and has been extensively re-edited; more on that later), this is a clean, good-looking transfer. Colors are vibrant, with no noticeable bleeding. The occasional scratch, speck, and reel mark appears, but compared to previous VHS releases (where I first saw the film), this looks fabulous.
The film's sound is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. This is a disappointment since The Ninth Configuration is an ideal candidate for a stereo mix, considering the amount of dialogue and Barry De Vorzon's lovely score. It sounds good for a mono track, but some hiss on the soundtrack is an annoyance, and some sound effects sound a bit muffled. Still, considering this film's checkered history, it's fine for now.
The R2 DVD was loaded with extras and there's no change here. I'm happy to report that the extras are unchanged. First, we start with an audio commentary featuring English film historian Mark Kermode and writer/producer/director William Peter Blatty. They speak for the film's entirety with few gaps between. It's an informative and entertaining track with lots of good insights into the film's production, its conception, and various problems afterward. Most recommended.
Next up are some deleted scenes. Now would be as good a place as any to talk about the extensive re-editing I mentioned earlier. When Warner Bros. first released the film in 1980, it ran 140 minutes. Blatty, who controls the rights, withdrew the film after WB advertised The Ninth Configurationas an Exorcist-like film. Six months later, United Film Distribution released a 130-minute version called Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane. Blatty withdrew the film after UFD gave the film a wide release instead of a word of mouth style release. In 1985, with New World Pictures, Blatty released a 118-minute cut. Twelve deleted scenes appear here, 10 from the original 140 minute cut plus two alternate endings from the 1985 New World release. Visually, they are not in good shape. They appear to be taken from 16mm prints, VHS dupes, and whatever they could find in the vaults. Aspect ratios vary. All are interesting and are like small pieces of the larger 500-piece puzzle. The only thing that is strange is that while the feature is non-anamorphic, these scenes are anamorphic. I wonder why.
An eight-minute featurette featuring Blatty and Kermode is next. Some of the material was covered in the commentary, but there are a few items that were passed over. Worth a look.
Lastly, there are some cast/director bios. They appear factually wrong at first, but keep in mind that these were prepared for the R2 disc and reflect the releases as they occurred in England.
Unfortunately, no theatrical trailer was included. Given the various edits and re-edits, I'm not surprised.
William Peter Blatty is not guilty of making one of the quintessential movies of the 1980s. He is guilty of waiting far too long between directorial efforts. Warner Bros is not guilty and should be commended for importing a fine disc for US consumption.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary Track by William Peter Blatty and Mark Kermode
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