William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration is tough to encapsulate in a review and pretty much impossible to tether to any specific genre. Picture a gum-ball machine full of primary coloured spheres and a few speckled throughout that are multicoloured and not just that but the colours seem to shift, migrate and elbow each other around the tiny globe like a scintillating oil spill. That’s not to say that the vast majority of single colour orbs don’t represent films that defy genre or think outside the box, it’s just that the multi hued mystery flavour ones head so far out past the stratosphere of genre playgrounds that they almost create a plane all their own. This is most definitely one such film.
Somewhere in the misty mountains of the Pacific Nortwest (actually filmed in Germany and Hungary) a giant, gothic castle plays host to a group of American ex-soldiers, committed to mental health treatment for PTSD and a host of other issues but left to roam free and act out their delusions more than anything else. Among them are Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), a once great astronaut who wigged out and lost his shit minutes away from a moon voyage launch, Frankie Reno (Jason Miller) who is recreating Shakespeare plays using all canine actors and a whole team of others with their own set of eccentricities. Together they are a classroom full of clowns who at first appear to be irreversible loonies, but as we know in human beings, that is ever solely the case. Stacy Keach is Colonel Vincent Kane, a distant, disturbed psychiatrist brought into treat them and he uses methods that range from complacent to empathetic to just as bizarre as their behaviour. I’ve just described general plot but that does nothing in imparting the dense, deep and often elusive philosophical ideas this wondrous film has to offer.
Blatty we all know as the author of The Exorcist, and he’s made it very clear that this is the spiritual sequel to that story. It’s a tough film to digest and unpack but infinitely rewarding for a few key reasons: He is adapting his own novel here, and as such we get an unfiltered glimpse of his creative ideas that cuts out all middle men and is the purest form of his work on the page. This was mostly financed by Pepsi of all people, who made a deal with him that if he filmed at least part of it in Hungary (where they had landlocked funds) that there’d be no interference on their part on anyone else’s. This allows a difficult, unconventional but extremely rewarding experience to unfold onscreen. Wilson is brilliant as the spooked astronaut, hiding his true nature behind a barrage of nonsensical banter and getting as down to earth as anyone could in a heartbreaking monologue that outlines exactly why he wouldn’t go to the moon and pinpoints a good portion of humanity’s collective existential dread in the process. Keach is hauntingly detached as Kane, a man obsessed with duality and the nature of good and evil in our world, it’s a tough character to nail down but the arc is secure in his hands. This is one of those ‘like nothing you’ve ever seen before’ films that can actually say it’s earned it. Part psychological thriller, part cerebral mood piece with touches of dark comedy, sympathy for the afflicted and ambition to understand the turmoil and alienation of the human spirit. Absolutely brilliant film.
John Carpenter’s The Fog is such a great campfire ghost story that it literally starts off with a campfire of its own, told by wistful sea captain John Houseman in a role that feels like it was meant for Donald Pleasance. He spookily regales a bunch of youngsters one cold coastal night: Long ago, a mysterious schooner crashed against the rocky landscape of Antonio Bay in a dense fog, for reasons slowly made clear. A century or so later, the fog returns, and those onboard come with it seeking revenge. Speaking of the coast, that vast, gorgeous California shoreline is a perfect backdrop and character all it’s own in Carpenter’s tale, the title credit appears over a picturesque beach, setting the ambience of the seaside region perfectly. Carpenter always values atmosphere and suspense above all else, his films have some of the most delicious slow burn setups out there, and the ethereal first act before the fog even shows up is one of the best extended sequences he’s ever done. As far as plot and character goes, the film has a cool Robert Altman vibe to its ensemble, from Hal Holbrook’s nervous priest, Jamie Lee Curtis’s plucky hitchhiking artist, Adrienne Barbeau’s sultry radio DJ and more, they all work in round-table fashion to get their stories across. They and others find themselves suddenly stranded in the approaching haze and hunted by silent, sword wielding zombie pirates who are more than a little pissed off that their boat crashed. The real treasure here is Carpenter’s original score, one in a long line of brilliant compositions. The main theme is a restless, jangly electronic cadence that feels both melodic and laced with doom, while quieter synth chords are infused with church bell cues elsewhere to bring the soundscape alive as only Carpenter can. This is a brilliant horror film, my third favourite Carpenter after Halloween and The Thing, and never fails to be as effective, chilling or beautiful to behold with each revisit as it was the first time I saw it.
John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is lean mean, brawny and one of the director’s best efforts, one of his leaps into non horror territory and a high concept, exploitation template that has become so iconic that he’s had to sue one production for literally copying and pasting. More iconic still is growling Snake Plissken, a nasty, uncooperative, maladjusted piece of work that has calcified into both a genre titan and one of Kurt Russell’s most instantly recognizable, badass characters. Plissken is basically a villain transplanted into the protagonist’s seat, where he gets to shake up the formula and push the boundaries of being an antihero nicely. By now everyone knows the story. The President (Donald Pleasence) ejects out of Air Force One and crash lands in futuristic NYC, now a giant penitentiary housing unwanted criminals from all over, cordoned off from the rest of the world. Snake is sent in by General Hauk (Lee Van Cleef is a sadistic snake in his own right) as a ‘fight fire with fire’ ditch effort, given twenty four hours to retrieve POTUS at an extraction point and implanted with a microchip that will blow him into hamburger helper if he doesn’t make his deadline. Cue explosions, car chases, wicked stunts and set pieces galore, done in Carpenter’s careful, tactile, authentic and slightly non-Hollywood manner. The guy just has a knack for taking formulaic premises and giving them a just-south-of-normal spin, his own flavour and one that makes cult classics that are built to last. Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, freaky Frank Doubleday, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins and good old Harry Dean Stanton all provide standout support. My favourite aspect of the film is the original score, composed by Carpenter himself, of course. It’s a spooky, atmospheric riff that’s akin to the music in The Thing, and just has this synth-y way about it that transports you to the specific time and place of the film flawlessly, it’s a showcase example of an auditory mood board. No remake could ever touch this, it’s too idiosyncratic and special to be updated, and the sooner studios realize their never ending goose chase to capture lightning in a bottle twice is a fool’s errand, the sooner we’ll get back on track and make original contemporary films that will becomes genre classics in the future, just like this. I love Plissken’s final act of brutal rebellion, a reminder that this is not a nice guy we’re dealing with here, but one who plays by his own rules and shirks the standards, much like Carpenter himself. I imagine Plissken’s reaction to news of a remake would be similar, if not more hotheaded, than that final, lethal sleight of hand prank he pulls on a government that stabs him in the back. Solid gold.
Join Frank and filmmaker turned Podcasting Them Softly co-host, Derek Wayne Johnson as they unveil PTS’s Halloween episode featuring a lively chat about Fred Dekker’s 80s masterpiece, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS.