Early in The Exorcist, actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has a cocktail party in her home in Washington, D.C. Among the guests is Father Joseph Dyer (William O’Malley), a charismatic priest from nearby Georgetown University. There’s also an unnamed astronaut about to leave on a mission. Chris’s young daughter Regan (Linda Blair) is sick and resting upstairs.
Father Dyer holds court at a piano, leading the guests in song. He proclaims that “my idea of heaven is a solid white nightclub with me as the headliner for all eternity, and they love me.” Dyer’s performance is interrupted by Regan, who has snuck downstairs. She tells the astronaut, “You’re gonna die up there” and then urinates on the carpet. Chris rushes Regan back upstairs.
The party ends, but the film’s drama begins. As soon as Chris leaves the room, Regan’s bed shakes violently, leading to the horrific possession that follows. By the time Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is joined by Father Lancaster Merrin (Max von Sydow) to exorcise Regan, the astronaut has faded from the audience’s memory.
Yet screenwriter William Peter Blatty had plans for the astronaut. Forget Exorcist II; the unofficial but true sequel to The Exorcist is The Ninth Configuration, a largely forgotten tragicomic horror film from 1980 worthy of rediscovery.
The two films’ styles could not be any more different, though they’re linked in some key ways. Despite its supernatural focus, The Exorcist has a domestic undercurrent. It largely takes place at a home and on a college campus. The Ninth Configuration is set in a secluded mountain castle in the Pacific Northwest but was filmed in Budapest. Blatty wrote, directed, and produced The Ninth Configuration, and the film has the feel of a singular, eccentric vision. Think Binx Bolling’s philosophical sarcasm from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer mixed with John Kennedy Toole’s absurdity in A Confederacy of Dunces—and a touch of Jesuit sensibility.
It was inevitable that The Ninth Configuration would fade to obscurity. The script is brilliant but obtuse. The film’s first quarter is vaudevillian and entertaining, but slow.
But the premise is unique. Skeptical of the high rate of soldiers “exhibiting symptoms of psychosis” toward the end of the Vietnam War, the military sends soldiers to secluded treatment centers. This particular treatment facility is more like a Theater of the Absurd troupe. The Exorcist’s Jason Miller adapts Shakespeare for dogs. Another soldier dresses as a nun. The ensemble cast, including Robert Loggia and Moses Gunn, clearly has fun with the gags and skits.
The most eccentric character is Marine Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), an astronaut who aborted a space mission during the final countdown. Cutshaw is the astronaut who Regan said would die in space. His ultimate fear was the godless expanse: in one dream-recollection of his aborted flight, he screams, “There’s nothing up there—nothing!”
The patients anticipate the arrival of a new psychiatrist, Colonel Vincent Kane, played by Stacy Keach (who was director William Friedkin’s original choice for Father Karras in The Exorcist). Kane’s portrayal is monotonic, nearly catatonic. He broods, but is soft-spoken and seems to truly care for the patients. When Major Marvin Groper (Neville Brand) uses force, Kane diffuses the situation and comforts the patient. Kane’s rebuke unnerves the steely Groper, who steps back, frightened and pale.