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.
Kane’s stoic demeanor hides a secret that is slowly revealed through his frequent nightmares and conversations with Colonel Richard Fell (Ed Flanders), the only other medical officer. Kane takes special interest in Cutshaw, who loves berating him with puns and profanity. (The Ninth Configuration is rated R for one reason: its often obscene dialogue). Keach and Wilson are an effective pair and evolve the film’s narrative from random hijinks to deep theological questions.
In one scene, Cutshaw grabs a copy of How I Believe by Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin from a bookshelf before quipping, “Show me a Catholic, and I’ll show you a junkie.” Kane wants to treat Cutshaw, while Cutshaw wants to test and break Kane. Cutshaw argues that they merely need to look at the debauchery of the facility to know that God does not exist.
Kane thinks that “there are some arguments from reason” to support God’s existence, to which Cutshaw responds, “Are those the things we use to justify dropping atomic bombs on Japan?” Wilson makes Cutshaw’s pivots from insanity to sanity believable; his frenzied rants turn into pointed questioning as he and the other patients hope to discover the mysterious Kane’s true identity.
The Ninth Configuration is moved forward by theological banter. Cutshaw is the skeptic and seeker, so afraid of God’s absence that he would feign insanity. Cutshaw wants direct evidence of God; he wants, essentially, the narrative of The Exorcist. Kane plainly states that such evidence amounts to miracles, and instead he offers the possibility of a distant God who has a plan for the future. “You’re convinced that God is dead because there is evil in the world,” Kane says. “Then why don’t you think that he’s alive because of the goodness of the world?”
“How is it that there’s love in this world?” he adds.
Kane offers hypothetical examples of sacrifice to prove God’s existence, but Cutshaw is unconvinced. He wants a personal example. Kane takes Cutshaw to Mass, where the priest says, “A good shepherd gives his life for his sheep,” setting up the film’s final act. Cutshaw flees the facility and is drinking at a bar when a motorcycle gang recognizes him from the aborted mission. They torture him until an enraged Kane arrives. The film’s bar fight is infamous, and for good reason: the scene’s methodical escalation mirrors the film’s pacing as a whole.
Keach has said The Ninth Configuration is the “antithesis” of The Exorcist, “serving up a vision that good (and therefore God) does exist.” He is correct. The drama of The Exorcist is not whether God exists; the question is whether the forces of good can beat the devil and save a young girl. Although less violent as a whole, The Ninth Configuration operates further in despair, yet offers its audience a complicated path—part theology, part dramatic example—toward light.
Nick Ripatrazone is a staff contributor for The Millions, and has also written for The Atlantic and Esquire. His newest book is Ember Days (Braddock Ave, 2015). He tweets @nickripatrazone.