A Three-Part Analytical Look at William Peter Blatty’s Faith Trilogy
Growing up entangled in both fear and faith throughout childhood, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was a book that brought a sense of duality to the way my head and heart worked. Being a member of a strict Baptist (and the Pentecostal) family, any art I would ingest would have to be hidden under threats of church bonfires and fear tactics. Already a secret horror fan, when I stumbled across the paperback copy of Blatty’s novel, it began a solid week of reading under a blanket with a flashlight and hiding the novel under my pillow to save myself from punishment.
“Does God really exist?” Although it was nearly impossible to ask at such a young age, the question found within the novel and Friedkin film was front and center in my young mind. It was something I found myself asking time and time again over the next decade of my life, thanks to the story of a priest losing his faith and finding it again in a time of need.
While I grew up a massive fan of The Exorcist, and even more so Blatty’s own directed The Exorcist III (my second favorite film of all time), I didn’t realize how profoundly impactful the writer/director’s words meant to me until a mere half-decade ago. Thirty-five years old at the time, I found myself revisiting 1990’s The Exorcist III and felt like broadening my Blatty input a bit more, so I went to my local library and checked out The Ninth Configuration (initially written in 1966 under the title Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane! and revised/rewritten under the current title in 1978). Enthralled by the characters, the story, and especially the dialogue of that book, there was something that reached out and grabbed my soul with fervor. Tracking down the Blatty-directed film adaptation wasn’t a walk in the park, and before finally watching the film, I wondered if The Ninth Configuration (1980) would affect me the way The Exorcist and The Exorcist III had, and readers…to say that it did would be an understatement.
There is something within the way Blatty tells the story of a military psychiatric facility being used to determine whether shell-shocked and mentally damaged soldiers are truly in need of mental help or if they’re faking their illnesses to get out of service. While that setup seems interesting enough, what makes the film and book so special lies within Blatty’s ability to provide an ensemble of characters who are so fleshed out, that you can easily see each one leading the film under different circumstances. Jason Miller (Father Karras in The Exorcist) plays a soldier locked in and obsessed with staging canine-only performances of Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays. Other performers include great characters actors like Joe Spinell and Robert Loggia playing eccentric and wild soldiers who are, in one way or another, obsessed with their own mental blocks. Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood, The Walking Dead) plays Billy Cutshaw, an astronaut who had a nervous breakdown prior to liftoff and lost his grasp soon after. The focus of a lot of the film’s questions is centered around Cutshaw who is also (noted more in the novel) the astronaut who is told he will die in space by Regan/Pazuzu in The Exorcist. There’s an on-the-edge approach to Cutshaw; the man defiantly exists to question any and everything, is furious at the thought of “god” and is always seeking a definitive answer with some proof that they are not alone in the universe.
If The Ninth Configuration was solely based on the soldiers trying to regain their footing in life, it would already be great, but what makes the film so impactful and lasting is its central story/mystery.
Following the introduction to the film’s supporting ensemble of soldiers who make the facility staff’s lives a living hell, we’re introduced to Colonel Hudson Kane (Stacy Keach), a military psychiatrist assigned to work at the facility — an abandoned castle — to help the patients. A stern-looking man with a presence that gives off a quiet and serious vibe, Kane immediately sees the damaged men as nothing more than human beings in need of sympathy and care, a far cry from the views of the facility’s other staff. Kane sees something special in the men and soon after, the film becomes a battle of wits between Cutshaw and Kane, who wants to understand Cutshaw and what led to his refusal to go to space. Cutshaw demands proof that God exists, proof that life is more than just pain and suffering, and can’t see how there could be a god with all of the pain that children and animals go through in life. Kane responds with the idea that if we’re basing our lack of faith on pain and suffering, then what must be said of the good in man? The Ninth Configuration has a knack for asking its viewer those very same questions. If we’re nothing more than atoms, shouldn’t every decision be one of reckless abandon? What explains altruism and love?
The facility’s doctor, Colonel Fell (played by the wonderful Ed Flanders), is a sympathetic man with a heart for trying his best to help Kane. He listens to the men within the facility, and we see a twinkle in his eye almost as if having Kane at the facility brings something special back into his own damaged heart.
Having recurring nightmares about a man named Killer Kane, Hudson begins to slowly lose his own footing before eventually confessing to Fell that the man he’s been dreaming of was his own brother and that he’s family with the notorious murderer responsible for a massacre. Almost immediately, we see Fell’s face drop, heartbroken and on the verge of tears. Excusing himself, Fell eventually breaks down crying outside the door for reasons we soon find out. When a new patient recognized Hudson, it is revealed that Hudson is actually Killer Kane himself who was the murderer who then had a complete mental breakdown which led him to the facility. Fell is Kane’s brother, the real psychiatrist, and the entire thing was therapy to help Hudson come to terms with the fact that he is indeed Vincent “Killer” Kane, the soldier who brutally massacred dozens of people.
The film then asks, “can an evil individual cure themselves and others with a purely selfless act and if so, does that selfless act prove the existence of good and therefore, prove the existence of god?” Cutshaw, defeated by the fact that the one person he trusted ended up being an infamous murderer, hits a local bar and gets in the crosshairs of a rowdy biker gang. He is saved when Vincent Kane (formerly Hudson) shows up, saving Cutshaw from not only being raped but also killed by the gang. Completely destroying the entire biker gang with his own hands, Kane returns to the castle with Cutshaw where Kane takes his own life in an act to show Cutshaw that he will sacrifice himself to save others from the evil found within his heart.
There’s something existentially rich in the way Blatty asks his readers and viewers big questions without even force-feeding them down their throats. It’s next to impossible to watch The Ninth Configuration, which is an existentialistic drama disguised as a comedy, without asking yourself exactly what Cutshaw is asking Kane and what Kane is asking Cutshaw without feeling the pain that Fell (who we find out is the real Hudson Kane) holds in his own heart. Blatty uses dialogue rich in humor and dry wit to inject these questions, and though he never gives us definitive answers (how could he answer such difficult life questions?), we’re left to fill in our own personal blanks. Is there a god, and if so, does the existence of goodness, of kind acts and love, prove that there is a flip side to the pain and suffering?
What a question.
Jerry Smith is a film journalist and composer, hailing from the Central Valley of California. For over a decade now, he has annoyed readers of many sites and magazines with an overabundance of Halloween 4 love and personal essays. Follow him on Twitter @JerryisjustOK and visit his website Rainydaysforghosts.bandcamp.com
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