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The Ninth Configuration

Theatrical release poster
Directed by William Peter Blatty
Produced by William Peter Blatty
Written by William Peter Blatty
Starring Stacy Keach
Scott Wilson
Jason Miller
Ed Flanders
Music by Barry De Vorzon
Cinematography Gerry Fisher
Running time 118 min.
Country United States
Language English

The Ninth Configuration, (also known as Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane) is an American-made film, released in 1980, directed by William Peter Blatty (most famous as the author of The Exorcist). It is often considered a cult film and it won the Best Screenplay award at the 1981 Golden Globes. The film is based on Blatty's novel, The Ninth Configuration (1978) which was itself a reworking of an earlier version of the novel, first published in 1966 as Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane!. The initial 1966 publication of the novel featured an exclamation mark at the end of the title, while all subsequent publications saw it removed.

The first half of the film has the predominant tone and style of a comic farce. In the second half, the film becomes darker as it delves deeper into its central issues of human suffering, sacrifice and faith. The film also frequently blurs the line between the sane and the insane.



Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), a Marine psychiatrist suffering from nightmares, arrives at a castle in the American Pacific Northwest where shell-shocked and insane soldiers from the Vietnam war are being treated. The castle's staff has been unable to control the patients, many of whom are suspected of faking their illness to get out of combat. The permissive Kane opens himself up to listen to anything the soldiers have to say to him in an effort to heal them, while at the same time suffering from his own demons.


On a dreary day, Captain Billy Cutshaw sits in a window of a large castle and listens to a melancholy song. As the song ends, he looks out the window and announces, "Someone is coming." Over the film credits, a majestic Saturn Five rocket awaits launch as a Jupiter-sized moon rises behind it. Colonel Kane awakes from the dream in a car, being driven to the castle. On the way there, they pass a pickup truck, going in the other direction, that is overloaded with members of a biker gang whom we see later in the movie; in the pickup is an old man tied to a chair. On Kane's arrival at the castle, the staff struggles to maintain discipline in the rowdy and irreverent patients, many of whom are dressed in ridiculous costumes. Kane begins speaking to a doctor (played by Blatty himself), but discovers that the doctor is actually another patient in disguise. Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders), shoos the imposter away and introduces himself as the real doctor.

Kane takes a permissive tone with the patients rather than the adversarial one shown by the rest of the staff. He allows several patients to rant at him about their respective delusions, and insists that he is always available to listen to the patients. At night, however, Kane has nightmares consisting of violent and disjointed images.

Cutshaw, one of the patients, is an astronaut who lost his sanity just before launching into space. After an angry tirade insisting that Kane leave the castle, Cutshaw calms down and agrees to give Kane his saint's medallion. Later that night, Kane writes his notes in red ink and makes a notation about the curative properties of "shock therapy." He then inspects Cutshaw's medallion and grips the chain like a garrote as his expression darkens.

Fell wakes Kane from another nightmare and questions him about his dreams. Kane says that they are another man's nightmares, explaining that another man described the dreams to him and now he gets them as well. Fell asks who the man was, and Kane responds that it was his brother, who is a "murderer". Kane asks if Fell has heard of Vincent "Killer" Kane, a guerilla soldier personally responsible for killing dozens of enemies. Kane says "Killer" Kane was his brother, but is now dead. Fell leaves, but as he closes Kane's door his jovial demeanor breaks suddenly into sobs.

Later, Cutshaw talks with another patient about Kane. Cutshaw suspects that Kane is crazy himself. He asserts that psychiatrists often go crazy and have the highest suicide rate of any profession. Cutshaw goes to talk with Kane again, angrily denying the existence of a purpose or divine plan. Kane, who believes that the existence of a God is far more likely than humanity having emerged from "random chance", tries to argue that deeds of pure self-sacrifice are proof of human goodness, which can only be explained by divine purpose. Cutshaw demands that Kane recall one concrete example of pure self-sacrifice from his personal experience, but Kane cannot.

Cutshaw convinces Kane to take him to a church service. Cutshaw interrupts the service with several outbursts. Looking at an altar boy, Kane momentarily sees a Vietnamese boy, but he dispels the illusion with difficulty. Back at the castle, Cutshaw thanks Kane and asks him to send him a sign as proof of an afterlife should Kane die first. Kane promises to try.

Another patient, who is staging a production of Hamlet using dogs as actors, gives a long speech to Kane asserting that Hamlet had to pretend to be crazy in order to stay sane. As he leaves, he meets with Cutshaw, who asks if "they bought it". The director responds, "Hell, I bought it".

A new patient is scheduled to arrive at the castle and Kane goes to meet him. Kane instantly recognizes the soldier, triggering a flashback. In the jungles of Vietnam, the soldier stumbles upon Kane, who is kneeling on the ground and muttering that he cut a boy's head off with a wire, but the boy "kept on talking". Insisting that they need to leave, the soldier advances on Kane, whom he sees is holding a severed head in his hands. Kane screams and the flashback ends. In the castle, Kane collapses unconscious.

Fell explains to the staff that Kane really is Vincent "Killer" Kane, and had suffered a breakdown in Vietnam. When Fell, who is actually Kane's brother Hudson, was dispatched back to America, Kane received the dispatch by accident. Kane came to believe that he was really his psychiatrist brother in order to escape from his guilt. He returned to America, subconsciously hoping to heal people to make up for his "murders". Realizing Kane's mental state, the Army psychiatric staff maintained the charade and sent him to Fell's hospital under the pretext of being its commanding officer. In reality, Fell has been the commanding officer all along. Kane awakens and remembers nothing of the incident.

Cutshaw escapes the castle and visits a bar. A biker gang recognizes Cutshaw and begins brutalizing him. A waitress contacts Kane, who arrives at the bar to retrieve him. The gang surrounds the two soldiers and insists that Kane perform a number of demeaning acts before he can leave. Kane complies with all of the demands with increasing difficulty. The gang grows angry at Kane's perceived spinelessness and continues to brutalize Cutshaw. When one of the bikers tries to rape Cutshaw, Kane's mild demeanor finally breaks. He kills the entire biker gang with his bare hands.

Back at the castle, Cutshaw visits Kane, who has wrapped himself in a blanket. Dreamy and distant, Kane disjointedly mumbles to Cutshaw about God and proof of human goodness before passing out. As Cutshaw leaves, Kane's hand emerges from his blankets and drops a bloody knife. Cutshaw soon notices a spot of blood on a his shoe. Returning to Kane's office, Cutshaw discovers that Kane has sacrificed his own life to directly provide the concrete example of human goodness which he was unable to demonstrate in a key scene earlier in the film.

Some time later, Cutshaw has returned to uniform and visits the now-abandoned castle. He sits in Kane's office and reads a note written to him by Kane. Kane writes that he hopes his death will "shock" Cutshaw back into sanity, but at any rate, he now has his one example of pure self-sacrifice. Cutshaw returns to his car and discovers that a saint's medallion has miraculously appeared on the seat. He turns it over to confirm whether it was the one he gave to Kane and silently rejoices at what he sees.


William Peter Blatty's novel Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane was first published in 1966. Blatty said, "I considered it a comic novel, but a great deal of philosophy and theology crept into it. But the farcical elements outweighed the serious elements."[1] Blatty adapted the novel into a screenplay, and intended for it to be filmed by William Friedkin. Blatty said that the script "was what you might call bizarre material. I had hoped to direct it myself. But after seeing The Night They Raided Minsky's I thought the script would be safe with Friedkin. I sent it along to him. He liked it. But we couldn't find a studio that liked it."[2] Blatty and Friedkin would later collaborate on the film version of The Exorcist (1973), with Blatty as screenwriter/producer and Friedkin as director, before Blatty returned to Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane. In lieu of filming the novel, Blatty decided to rewrite it: "After The Exorcist, I decided that I could develop the story a great deal. So I rewrote it and fleshed it out, and fully developed the deeper implications and theological themes."[1] The rewritten version of Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane was published in 1978 under the title The Ninth Configuration. Blatty has said that he prefers the first version of the book to the second: "the first one is infinitely funnier and wilder, and stranger and more of a one of a kind; the second one has the same plot, but the prose is more finely crafted, I think. In the first one I allowed the comedy to carry me, so I think I prefer that one...I loved the characters and it was a pleasure to write."[3]

Blatty then developed The Ninth Configuration into a screenplay for Columbia Pictures (Blatty did not want to work with Warner Bros. as he had sued that studio over his proper share of profits from The Exorcist). Columbia then placed the screenplay in turnaround; Blatty took the script to Universal Pictures. Universal rejected it; according to Blatty, this was "not because of any consideration of quality, but simply because Columbia had let it go. There was nobody prepared to take a chance on their own judgement."[4]

With no major film studio prepared to fund The Ninth Configuration, Blatty decided to raise the film's $4 million budget by putting up half the money himself, and persuading the PepsiCo conglomerate to provide the remaining $2 million. As writer/director of the film, Blatty was promised complete creative control over the production by PepsiCo with only one stipulation: that the film had to be shot in Hungary (PepsiCo had block funds in that country, and reinvested money from the film's production into a Pepsi bottling plant there).[4]


Blatty retained Jason Miller, who had played Father Karras in The Exorcist, for The Ninth Configuration. Ed Flanders (once considered for the role of Karras in The Exorcist) was also cast; Michael Moriarty was set to play Captain Billy Cutshaw but dropped out of the production (he was replaced by Scott Wilson, who was originally cast in a different role). For the central role of Colonel Kane, Blatty cast Stacy Keach (another contender for the part of Father Karras in The Exorcist). Blatty had originally cast Nicol Williamson in the role of Kane, before deciding that the British actor was wrong for the part: "I was deluding myself. I so desperately admired [Williamson] and wanted him in my picture that I persuaded myself that he could be an American Marine corps colonel. I realised during rehearsals. He was magnificent, but there was no way he could be an American colonel. He came to Budapest and we rehearsed for two weeks. And we were coming up to the weekend before our first shoot on the following Monday, and then I remembered one of the people I'd strongly considered was Stacy Keach. And we found out that night that he was available and he was with us on Tuesday."[5] Blatty himself appears briefly near the start of the film as an army doctor.

Tom Atkins also had a minor role in the film, and in an interview in January 2009, he discussed what the film shoot was like: "I have always believed that a movie about the making of that film would have been much better than the actual movie turned out to be. It was kind of a zoo from the very beginning. William Peter Blatty wrote and directed it and financed part of it by selling a home that he had in Malibu. His idea of getting a good ensemble effort from his actors was to take people over to Budapest for two months—the part I had might have taken two weeks in the States but he had us all over there for two months. All he ended up getting was 22 really upset, angry and drunk actors who had a lot of trouble showing up for work. I thought that the script was wonderful but I don’t think that Blatty ever got what he wanted up on the screen. I think a lot of us took the job because we would be able to go to Prague and Moscow and bounce around Europe when we weren’t working. He decided that he would put up the call sheet for the next day at midnight so that you couldn’t go anywhere."[6]

Release and reception

The Ninth Configuration was not a commercial success upon its cinematic release in 1980; however, it received generally strong notices and a Best Picture nomination at the 1981 Golden Globe Awards. Although the film did not win, Blatty did win a Golden Globe for the film's screenplay. Leonard Maltin has described the movie as "hilarious yet thought-provoking, with endlessly quotable dialogue and an amazing barroom fight scene."[7] Blatty's screenplay was later published in 2000 with commentary by English film critic Mark Kermode (Kermode also contributed to the audio commentary and feauturette on the film's DVD release in 2002). Kermode has described The Ninth Configuration as "a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action. From exotically hallucinogenic visions of a lunar crucifixion to the claustrophobic realism of a bar-room brawl, via such twisted vignettes as Robert Loggia karaoking to Al Jolson and Moses Gunn in Superman drag, Blatty directs like a man with no understanding of, or interest in, the supposed limits of mainstream movie-making. The result is a work of matchless madness which divides audiences as spectacularly as the waves of the Red Sea, a cult classic that continues to provoke either apostolic devotion or baffled dismissal 20 years on."[8]

Awards and nominations

  • Golden Globe Awards
    • Best Film - Drama - Nomination
    • Best Supporting Actor - Scott Wilson - Nomination
    • Best Screenplay - William Peter Blatty - WON

Alternate versions

Several versions of The Ninth Configuration were released in cinemas and on video tape and DVD (one version retained the title Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane). In the original theatrical release and the Blatty-endorsed DVD, Kane kills himself with the knife. In some versions released during the intervening years, an alternate ending was used in which Kane dies of wounds inflicted by the bikers.

Connection to The Exorcist series

William Peter Blatty once referred to The Ninth Configuration as the true sequel to The Exorcist, and has stated that he intended the character of Captain Cutshaw to be the same astronaut whom a sleepwalking Regan in The Exorcist warns, "You're going to die up there." In The Ninth Configuration, Cutshaw mentions a fear of dying in space that is almost certainly a reference to Regan's line in the previous film. However, the characters were played by different actors, and the astronaut in The Exorcist is not given a name onscreen or by the credits.

Although The Ninth Configuration is quite dissimilar to The Exorcist in terms of story and tone, both films feature theological discussions between their respective characters which address questions of faith, the mystery of goodness vs evil, and the existence of God and the Devil. The motif of a saint's medallion as a symbol of faith appears in both The Exorcist and The Ninth Configuration; also of interest is the fact that some dialogue from Blatty's discarded, first-draft screenplay for The Exorcist was re-used in The Ninth Configuration.

From the original Exorcist screenplay:

Chris MacNeil: If you're asking if I believe in the devil, the answer is yes - yeah, that I believe. The devil keeps doing commercials.

Father Dyer: But if all the evil in the world makes you think that there might be a devil - then how do you account for all of the good?

From the final version of The Ninth Configuration:

Captain Cutshaw: I believe in the Devil alright. And you know why? Because the prick keeps doing commercials!


Colonel Kane: You're convinced that God is dead because there's evil in the world.

Captain Cutshaw: Correct.
Colonel Kane: Then why don't you think He's alive because of the goodness in the world?

Several cast members from The Ninth Configuration would go on to appear in 1990's The Exorcist III (written and directed by William Peter Blatty): Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Scott Wilson and George DiCenzo; also, Nicol Williamson, who was originally cast in The Ninth Configuration, appears in Exorcist III.


  1. ^ a b William Peter Blatty, cited in Bob McCabe, The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows (Omnibus Press, 1999), p.166
  2. ^ William Peter Blatty, William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist: From Novel to Film (Bantam Books, 1974), p.39
  3. ^ William Peter Blatty, cited in Bob McCabe, The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows (Omnibus Press, 1999), p.166, 168
  4. ^ a b Bob McCabe, The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows (Omnibus Press, 1999), p.168
  5. ^ William Peter Blatty, cited in Bob McCabe, The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows (Omnibus Press, 1999), p.169
  6. ^
  7. ^ Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s 2009 Movie Guide (Plume, 2008) p.991
  8. ^

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