Sometime in the late ’70s I stumbled on a paperback copy of the novel Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane in a second-hand bookstore. While I was then going through a bout of reading horror fiction, I really think I picked it up more for the presumed reference to the Buck Rogers villain, Killer Kane, in the title. I knew who Blatty was. I’d read The Exorcist years before and don’t mind admitting it had scared the hell out of me — but I admit I was 19 at the time and living by myself and so was pretty susceptible. Still, it wasn’t the presumed horror content that made me plunk down my 50 cents, which was perhaps just as well. The book — and Blatty’s film of it — has certain horror tropes, but those mostly lie in its Dracula-like castle setting. (The book makes it sound like Bela Lugosi built it. The film claims it was a Vanderbilt extravagance, which is more believable.) This is more a comic novel that is also a surprisingly deep look at the nature of faith — a topic Blatty can sell me on at least while I’m reading his books or watching the films of them.
It was years before I knew there was a film of book. In fact, I didn’t know The Ninth Configuration even was a film of the book until I watched it and realized I knew the story. I was very close to blown away by the movie — and that was the somewhat altered New World Video release (the ending is quite different). I may have cooled a little bit on it over the intervening years, but not much. As noted, the film details the experiences of a new shrink, Col. Kane, at a facility for mentally unstable soldiers.The question has arisen as to whether or not at least some of these decidedly quirky headcases are faking it. After all, we’re talking about people whose madness manifests itself in movie trivia, Al Jolson impressions, adapting Shakespeare’s plays for dogs, and other curious obsessions. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that most of these men may not be on the up and up. At the top of the list is Capt. Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), an astronaut who freaked out and refused to undertake a mission during countdown. (Apparently, this wasn’t his first indication of mental trouble.) It is this that becomes a delving into the existence of God — with Kane on the God side and Cutshaw taking on the role of doubter, since it was his fear that there isn’t a God that caused his breakdown.
While that is the crux of the film, it hardly conveys the grand tragicomedy of the film, nor the density of its screenplay and characterizations. For that matter, it doesn’t even touch on the mystery surrounding the Kane character himself. There are a few awakward bits. I have no idea what the purpose of that ersatz country song at the beginning is, and the biker gang near the end of the film don’t feel all that authentic. But these are definitely minor things in a film with all manner of rich compensations. The dialogue is generally terrific and the performances are top-notch across the board with Keach, Wilson, Miller, and Flanders standing out.