The loss of a creative voice often prompts a revisiting of their works. In January, William Peter Blatty, best known as author of The Exorcist, passed away. And while The Exorcist is certainly a film worthy of endless discussion, my favorite Blatty work is 1980’s The Ninth Configuration. Written and directed by Blatty himself and based on his own novel, Ninth Configuration is an eerie creation exploring faith, philosophy, and mental illness. This under-seen and complex film has a depth that lends itself to multiple viewings, and this past rewatch left me thinking about mental health and its portrayal in cinema.
In many ways a product of its time, Configuration’s take on the subject of insanity occasionally leans toward the antiquated. The story focuses on a group of men housed in an old castle. Left to work through their issues, there’s a sense that they may simply be cured of their ailments. A film like The Babadook embraces a more contemporary take, asserting that mental illness isn’t something to be outrun or cast off — it lives with you and requires a watchful eye. There’s also a monologue by a doctor that hearkens back to the final scene of Psycho; it teeters on info-dump and may feel unnecessary to modern audiences due to how commonplace the subject matter is today.
But there’s an aspect of Configuration that feels progressive even when compared to recent releases. While many films use mental illness as the basis for a twist or big reveal — something that distorts the reality of the story — Configuration is upfront and uses its characters’ tenuous grip on reality to explore bigger themes.
Parallels can easily be drawn between it and 2010’s Shutter Island. (Spoilers for both films ahead.) A desolate facility filled with mysterious and troubled characters populate both but, to its detriment, Shutter Island's effectiveness hinges on keeping information from the viewer, information that changes the narrative. Instead of embracing Leonardo DiCaprio's distorted worldview and using that rift to tell a story, it chooses to let the new information invalidate everything he’s experienced.
Early on in Configuration, we see signs that our protagonist Colonel Kane, played by Stacy Keach, is struggling with reality. This manifests in dreams and erratic behavior, coming to a head with the reveal of the true extent of his dissociative disorder. In Shutter Island, a very similar reveal sits at the film’s center — but in this case, it's the goal of the story, and it’s where the narrative ends; pulling the rug from underneath both viewer and protagonist takes precedence. Configuration tackles so much more, and is less about developing a character defined by “insanity” and instability, and more a vehicle to discuss larger, more complex ideas. Once viewer and characters are brought together and offered the same information, the story changes gears and careens head-on into discussions of God, the afterlife, and trauma.
Recent films like last year’s The Disappointments Room (which touts a similar “twist” to Shutter Island) and Lights Out (with its utilization of the common haunting-as-allegory-for-mental-illness trope) presented modern takes on loss of sanity and self. Interesting though those methods of storytelling may be, many thrillers and horror films that employ the mental illness allegory tiptoe around the subject rather than attack it directly. And, like with Disappointments Room, fictional depictions of insanity frequently rely on the viewer’s manipulation. Genre films often treat emotional and mental disturbance as a finish line, avoiding the journey.
The Ninth Configuration’s mix of farcical humor, theatrical staging, and atheistic discussions make it a unique film, but the way it uses a roster of men with troubled emotional states is what makes this film truly noteworthy. They aren’t the punchline, they’re the whole story.
Christine Makepeace lives in Austin, the Shutter Island of Texas.