Opening narration tells how, towards the end of the Vietnam war, a large number of active soldiers began showing signs of insanity. Rather than treat them back home in America and face the wrath of the press, the US military set up clandestine facilities to house these men while they researched into their conditions. One such place, site 18, was based in a remote castle tucked away in a pine forest near the coast of Washington State. The asylum still stands, we're told, where doctors continue to experiment on the inmates in a bid to determine whether or not they're all simply "faking it".
Among the motley crew of supposed nutters are budding thespian Reno (Jason Miller), his uncharacteristically meek pal Spinell (Joe Spinell), Superman wannabe Nammack (Moses Gunn), doctor-impersonating Fromme (director William Peter Blatty in an uncredited role) and disturbed astronaut Cutshaw (Scott Wilson). They're overseen by officers who seem hardly any more sane than them: drill sergeant Groper (Neville Brand), his sinister right-hand-man Krebs (Tom Atkins) and kooky doctor Fell (Ed Flanders).
Into this warped situation comes eminent military psychiatrist Kane (Stacy Keach), who's been tasked with getting to know each inmate and deciding once-and-for-all whether they need to be contained any further.
What Kane is confronted with is enough to scare most men away - the place truly is a madhouse. But his quiet calm remains unwavering as he gets to know the men one by one, taking a particular interest in suspicious Cutshaw while trying to coax stories of his moon mission from him.
Has Kane been lured there on false pretences? Is there more to him than meets the eye? What is it from his past that seems to disturb him so? And what's the significance of the ninth configuration?
Blatty directs from his own script, leading a fine cast which also includes the likes of Richard Lynch and Robert Loggia. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, from 1980, is a real oddity. Tonally, it's all over the place. The likes of Miller and Spinell ham it up for laughs most of the time, awkwardly juxtaposed opposite Keach's overly sombre lead. The laughs are clumsy and broad, and each such scene is greeted immediately afterwards by either a moment of deadly seriousness or some heavy-handed philosophical dialogue.
And yet ... as the film lunges onwards, it does weirdly gel together. The plot is quietly compelling, especially after the midway mark where the titular enigma is finally introduced to the storyline. Each actor appears to be enjoying their role enormously, save for Keach who looks unbelievably (but perhaps intentionally?) uncomfortable.
The film is beautifully photographed and tightly edited throughout.
So if you can get past its rather talky first hour, a general aura of heavy drug-taking (whether or not everyone concerned was off their tits during the shoot, it certainly comes across that way) and the fact that it never truly settles on what it wants to be - comedy, drama or horror - THE NINTH CONFIGURATION actually emerges as a solidly engaging way of spending two hours.
Presented as an MPEG4-AVC file, the film is awarded the full 1080p HD treatment for this new transfer. The original 2.35:1 ratio is adhered to and, naturally, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Images are clean and vibrant for the most part. Though blacks are deep and true, there is a little fading evident in earlier scenes. Flesh tones seem accurate throughout and there's a keen sense of natural filmic depth to be experienced during playback.
English audio is provided in a LPCM dual mono mix and is highly reliable throughout. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easy to read at all times.
Second Sight's UK blu-ray disc opens to an animated main menu page. From there, pop-up menus include a scene selection option allowing access to the film via 16 chapters.
Bonus features commence with an audio commentary track from Blatty. He reveals how the film was based on two of his novels, the farcical "Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane" and the more serious rewrite "The Ninth Configuration". This, of course, goes some way towards explaining the film's tonal schizophrenia. With a good mind for detail and an honest take on his cast, as well as some welcome insight into the headier concepts being tackled by the film, Blatty makes for an entertaining host. Of course, the real meat here comes from the news of partying and ill behaviour from the cast during the shoot. Mark Kermode does a great job of moderating.
He's also on form for a 16-minute video interview which inevitably covers some of the same ground as found on the commentary track. He covers potential alternate titles, his trouble getting studio backing and so on.
"Confessions of Kane" finds Keach looking very well as he speaks over the course of 14 minutes about, among other things, how he first met Blatty when auditioning (successfully) for the role in THE EXORCIST that ultimately went to Miller. We learn how he got the part of Kane, a little more about Blatty's writing habits, and the tribulations of filming on location in Budapest.
"The Debrief of Sgt Christian" spends 7 minutes with actor Stephen Powers. He has a minor role in the completed film, but he's here to explain how his character was originally going to play a much more significant part. Still, he made some lasting friends on the shoot ... so all was not lost.
Production designer William Malley and art director J Dennis Washington are the subjects of the illuminating 12-minute "Designing the Configuration".
"Killer on my Mind" sees composer Barry De Vorzon offer some insight into both his score for the film and working with Blatty in general. This featurette runs for 9 minutes.
The disc's real highlight for me is the excellent "The Party Behind the Curtain", in which Miller, Atkins, Blatty and Lynch offer a little more insight into the raucous lifestyle being led while shooting in Budapest. A mixture of new interview footage and archive chats (including segments lifted from Blue Underground's sublime "The Joe Spinell Story" documentary), this makes for a brilliant 14-minute expose.
All of the above extras are in HD.
A 7-minute archive featurette on the film hosted by Kermode looks deeper into the film's theme of proving God's existence and places that in the context of Blatty's work.
20 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes include some extremely interesting footage which would've altered proceedings a great deal. These are contextualised by introductory text.
THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is a fun film, rather unique, with a production history which is every bit as interesting as the finished article. Second Sight's blu-ray does a fine job of presenting the film and a plethora of engrossing bonus features, making this easily the best way to see the movie.
Also available on DVD.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Second Sight|
|see main review|