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The Ninth Configuration

The Ninth Configuration(1980)

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teaser The Ninth Configuration (1980)

Few films - or novels - have a history more bizarre or potentially confusing than The Ninth Configuration (1980), an ambitious and genre-defying directorial debut for the late William Peter Blatty, who wrote the bestselling novel The Exorcist and won an Oscar for adapting it into a screenplay. Like his novels, the film features strong elements of wry, intellectual dark humor; in fact, prior to his biggest commercial hit, Blatty had been a mostly comedic screenwriter with several Blake Edwards films including A Shot in the Dark (1964) and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966).

Around the time of that latter film's release, Blatty published a novel entitled Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killler" Kane!, which was developed simultaneously as a screenplay and announced as a Barry Shear production in the Hollywood trades in 1965 (well before the novel even hit the stands). The humorous, surreal, and sometimes disturbing book charted the experiences of a group of astronauts and SAC pilots in an asylum, who become upended with the arrival of a new psychiatrist with a secret of his own. Though not a success on its initial publication, the book went into worldwide circulation after the success of The Exorcist and its film version, directed by William Friedkin (who had been approached by Blatty to direct Kane at an earlier time). Friedkin declined to direct the project again after their successful collaboration, and Blatty decided to realize its creation himself at great personal cost.

Subsequent announcements of a film version, now dropping the exclamation point and simply titled Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, continued to pop up for years including a notice as an Avco Embassy production in 1975. Blatty began to extensively rework both the novel and his screenplay, with both christened as The Ninth Configuration. Under that title it was announced again in 1977, slated to shoot in Hungary with rotating stars including The Exorcist's Jason Miller, Nicol Williamson, Alejandro Rey, and Michael Moriarty. Already a confirmed cast member, Scott Wilson stepped in as troubled astronaut Cutshaw to replace Moriarty when he dropped out, with Wilson's role in turn taken by George DiCenzo. More casting upheaval occurred when Williamson left the Hungarian shoot (under contentious circumstances that still vary depending on the account) and the role of Kane went to Stacy Keach, who was happy to reunite with Wilson after the Richard Fleischer police drama, The New Centurions (1972).

No studio was willing to put up the money for the shoot (Warner Bros. and Universal had been approached and passed), so Blatty put $2.5 million of his own money into the film, largely raised by selling his house in Malibu. The rest was financed by Pepsi, who insisted on shooting in Hungary for business advantages with the local government, and the production was studded with an eye-popping array of character actors including Joe Spinell, Ed Flanders, Neville Brand, Moses Gun, Robert Loggia and Tom Atkins.

Oddly enough, Blatty's radically revised second version of the novel hit stands in 1978, long before the film ever reached theater screens. Despite the fact that it had recently been involved in a lawsuit with Blatty over profits from The Exorcist, Warner Bros. ended up with the distribution rights for the film and opened it as a test market engagement in Los Angeles in March of 1980, with additional test venues added soon after. Still proud of the film to this day, Keach was impressed by Blatty's commitment and told the Los Angeles Times at the time, "His perseverance is extraordinary. The movie has only opened in three cities so far, and it will go on playing three cities every few weeks until they feel it's gained enough momentum to open in New York. To Bill Blatty, it's a baby, just learning how to walk. He's not really that concerned about the reviews." In fact, Keach cited Blatty's dedication as the inspiration to go ahead with The Long Riders with his brother, James.

The film proved a major challenge to market and received a wide array of contrasting critical responses, though it did earn a trio of Golden Globe nominations with Blatty ending up with a win for his screenplay. However, Blatty disagreed strongly with the scattershot, horror-centric marketing, and Warner Bros. dropped the film and returned it to Blatty. "After eight weeks, I knew I had a problem when Warners decided that a nine-theater mini-break didn't warrant more than a two-inch newspaper ad," Blatty told Variety after taking back the film. He ended up handing the film to United Film Distribution, who had scored a recent hit with Dawn of the Dead (1978). They decided to recut the film extensively and retitled it Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, even booking it for some 70mm exhibitions. At the same time as the film's wide release in July of 1980, Blatty announced plans to write and direct Legion, his sequel to The Exorcist, for Lorimar, with a projected production start in the spring of 1981.

The complete approved version of The Ninth Configuration made its general theatrical debut several years later when it was screened in New York in 1983 ("See it now for the first time in its entirety! Exclusive - never shown anywhere else!"), including a stint as a midnight movie along with Snuff, Pink Flamingos, and Pink Floyd The Wall. That same year Blatty finally published his novel version of Legion, which would later be adapted under famously turbulent circumstances for Morgan Creek as Exorcist III, with Blatty writing and directing (and Flanders returning from this film's cast).

The Ninth Configuration continued to pop up in arbitrary markets, including a Chicago and Los Angeles run in September, 1985 through New World Pictures. Since then Blatty's full cut has become the standard one and is the only edition available on home video, and it has gone on to amass a considerable cult following with its strange history receding to make way for an appreciation of the audacious film on its own terms. Filled with ruminations on theology, morality, and the nature of human sanity and perception, it represents Blatty at full strength, something the world has learned not to take for granted.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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