Okay, so here’s the thing. This month I wanted to find a good deep cut from the great Tom Atkins, whose charm and mustache thrilled us throughout the ’80s, even as he played a lecherous doctor, a kinda lecherous resident of a quaint seaside town, and a caustic cop haunted by his past (who I assume was also a lech). So when I dove into his filmography in search of a lesser-known vehicle, I perked up when I found the 1980 psychological drama The Ninth Configuration.
Alas, after watching the film, it turns out that Atkins has a relatively minor role, but there’s no way I could skip this movie, as it features a Murderers’ Row of horror character actor royalty. And so I figured, since baseball season did just start...*Puts on best Bob Uecker voice from Major League.*
Well, hello there, horror fans! And welcome to another installment of Catalog from the Beyond. Today’s feature is fixing to be a real barn burner, with William Peter Blatty looking to follow up on his success as the screenwriter from a little feature you may have heard of from the ’70s, The Exorcist. This time he’s going free agent to direct this adaptation of his 1966 novel, Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane! He had a lot of slumps getting this thing off the ground, including rewriting the novel and getting rejected by two different studios before deciding to co-finance the production himself along with PepsiCo. Which reminds me, this movie is literally brought to you by Pepsi. (Reads ad copy.) Pepsi: We bet Coke doesn’t make genre movies!
With that, let’s bring out the stellar lineup that Blatty put together. First up, we have Stacy Keach, a journeyman who can play virtually any position, be it a hard-nosed policeman in the stoner classic Up in Smoke or the lovable truck driver evading a serial killer in the Australian thriller Road Games. Today, he’s suiting up as Colonel Kane, a psychiatrist for the Marine Corps who’s been assigned to a government facility in the Pacific Northwest that’s housing a group of servicemen who have all suffered acute mental illness. Given the unexplained uptick in such psychotic episodes, the powers that be believe the men might be faking it, so Kane is there to evaluate them.
One such man is Billy Cutshaw, played by the great Scott Wilson. You’ve seen Wilson play for any number of great franchises, from The Exorcist III, The X-Files, and of course the living dead powerhouse The Walking Dead. For The Ninth Configuration, he’s donning a bit of an unorthodox uniform: that of a Marine turned astronaut who had a nervous breakdown just as he was walking on the platform to get to his shuttle.
As the top two in the lineup, Keach and Wilson are really the heart and soul of this team. Cutshaw revels in rallying the group to torment anyone of authority, particularly Kane. But under the mischief, Wilson really conveys the pain of a man whose path has him questioning the existence of a higher power or even anything truly good in the universe. As Kane, Keach portrays a sincere desire to help men like Cutshaw, but also shows some fraying at the edges that makes us wonder whether he should be receiving care as opposed to giving it.
As we get further down the lineup, we get players who are just as game as our stars. Jason Miller stands out as he switch hits after an all-star performance in The Exorcist. In stark contrast to the dour Father Karras, Miller’s turn as Lieutenant Frankie Reno provides some much welcome humor to the outing, as Reno believes himself to be putting on an adaptation of Shakespeare using an all-dog cast.
Batting cleanup is Joe Spinell, who plays Lieutenant Spinell. And no, that’s not a typo, folks. He’s got the same name as his character. Lieutenant Spinell has taken it upon himself to support Reno’s production efforts, and watching him play it cool under Reno’s rants about dog casting and set design reminds me that while he can play a Maniac like no other, he’s got the talent to pinch hit wherever he’s needed.
Filling out the team is a solid roster of supporting players. Of course we have the aforementioned Atkins playing one of the poor Sergeants charged with keeping some semblance of order at the facility, and you know you’re working with a roster overloaded with talent when Robert Loggia is relegated to little more than a bit part.
Of course, the team is only as good as their skipper, and, according to Atkins, Blatty may be better suited writing the playbook than he is at coaching the team. Production proved to be something of a slog, in no small part because of the decision to fly everyone over to shoot in Budapest for two months regardless of the size of the part. This apparently left a lot of drunken, angry players milling about most of the time.
While this may not have been the spring training these guys had in mind, you may still enjoy what you see come game day. It’s got a certain kind of earnest charm, sort of like a minor league version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And while depicting mental illness on screen can be a tricky gamble, as it can come off as a gimmicky trick play, everyone involved here seems intent on pulling it off without turning its characters into a punchline. Granted, there are a few questionable play calls, including putting Loggia in blackface and coding the Evil Biker Gang™ as queer.
You’re not likely to get the World Series level of play that you saw if you watched The Exorcist, but if you’re willing to have some fun despite some messy gameplay, then you ought to enjoy a few innings with The Ninth Configuration. So, grab your peanuts and Cracker Jacks, kick back, and enjoy the game. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go stretch out a bit, much like I did with this metaphor.