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.
Calling Exorcist 2: The Heretic a horror movie is a bit of a stretch, but anyways. The only heretics to be found here are the studio heads that green-lit this script and the nimrod who edited it. This is a an embarrassment to the power of the first film and a weird (not in a cool way), hectic, inexplicable piece of wanton disarray. I don’t usually give out and certainly never enjoy these lashings but this one knows good and well what it did and had it coming.
Directed by John Boorman (who also did the solid Deliverance and the masterful Emerald Forest so maybe we shouldn’t fault him entirely here), this sees a now teenage Regan McNeil (a now teenage but still baby faced Linda Blair) afflicted once again by that pesky demon, or sorta kinda. The Vatican wants answers as to what happened to their first two dudes and so they send an investigative priest (Richard Burton) who teams up with Regan and her psychiatrist (Louise Fletcher) to stir some shit up. This all runs parallel to an expansion on Father Merrin’s (Max Von Sydow) exploits in Africa battling the very same demon and I know it’s supposed to all make some sort of intrinsic sense but the thing feels like it was written on an etch-a-sketch and edited with a jackhammer.
So what actually works? Well the film looks great, from Regan’s aggressively postmodern penthouse apartment to the spooky crags and mud huts of Africa. The visual atmosphere is great and permeates everything. And what doesn’t work? Pretty much everything else, really. Blair doesn’t have the same magnetism she had as a kid and both her lines on the page and her delivery feel detached and flat. The great Ennio Morricone takes scoring detail but I’m not sure what he was on that day because what he comes up with here is… I dunno. Where atmospherics should have been employed he’s used a soundboard of wails, howls, hollers, hoots and other nondescript aural diarrhea to the point where it’s laughable and distracting. The hypnotism and African stuff sort of work in isolated fashion but in terms of tying a coherent story together they’re used in a completely nonsensical way and there’s just so many “huh?” moments in the plot. I’m not sure what went wrong here but I’m sure there’s a reasonable story behind the mess, perhaps one more interesting than the actual film itself. Probably, because I feel like doing taxes would be more interesting and less confusing than this thing. Stick to the classic first one or also excellent third instead.
I’m not huge on horror movies. But The Exorcist is brilliant, and easily one of my all-time favorite films in any genre. This movie actually kind of scares me, every time I watch any portion of it, no matter the time of day. It certainly gets under my skin; it’s relentlessly thrilling and so ruthless in its force and skill that it’s become one of those films that I study in terms of the nuts and bolts of its construction. I’m not a believer in the idea of real-world demonic possession, but, the scenario certainly has made for more than a few memorable cinematic experiences, but William Friedkin’s beyond intense vision is truly the stuff of nightmares. Owen Roizman’s carefully measured cinematography puts you on edge immediately, as the nearly wordless opening 20 minutes plunges the viewer into an exotic world with very little context, as Max von Sydow’s priest character unearths something terrible out in the desert. Ellen Burstyn was sensational as the actress/mother struggling with almost every facet of her life, with her biggest problem being that her young daughter Regan, the show-stopping Linda Blair, has caught the eye of the Pazuzu, an ancient demon. Jason Miller’s tortured performance as Father Karras is some of the most emotionally affecting work in this genre that I’ve come across; admittedly I’m no aficionado of the horror world, but Miller’s acting in this film has always resonated with me, and has always seemed to be a cut above for this sort of fare, which can tend to be overplayed for big, obvious moments. There’s a reason this movie has endured as long as it has – it’s truly horrific in all the right ways, vulgar and nasty, never afraid to go to some truly dark and disturbing places, while still paying respect to classic genre tropes. The Exorcist feels perfect from scene to scene, with each performance totally nailed by the incredible ensemble, and all of the craft elements aligning to create one of the most visceral and truly horrifying visions of cinematic terror that’s ever been presented.