After the success of "The Exorcist," writer William Peter Blatty decided to adapt a project originally to have been handled by director "Exorcist" William Friedkin. Based on his 1968 novel "Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane," "The Ninth Configuration" remains one of two films written and directed by Blatty - this one being a deeply personal project that has become a revered entry in the "theological thriller" genre; and a film with an incredibly convoluted release history.
Initially released theatrically by Warner Bros, "The Ninth Configuration" was subsequently re-released by another company (with ten minutes removed by the director), and again in a supposed 'Director's Cut' through Roger Corman's New World Pictures (who further altered the film for TV). England's Blue Dolphin re-released Blatty's new edit - restoring elements originally present in the preview and Warner Bros versions - and it's this version that's now on DVD.
As Blatty explains the film's confusing release history on his commentary track, Warner Bros still retains the video rights to the film, and they've ported over the extras from the Blue Dolphin British DVD.
"The Ninth Configuration" never looked good on video before - perhaps because the prints were washed out, and the colour contrasts pretty harsh. This new anamorphic transfer cleans up the film fairly well, offering greater picture detail, better colour stability, and improved colour saturation. Given that the film's great sets were shot in Hungary, and the awe-inspiring castle exterior in Germany, the improved transfer gives us a better impression of Gerry Fisher's cinematography. Made in 1980, Blatty's pacing allows for many gorgeous castle shots, including a stunning tower unmasking, as morning fog drifts towards the higher mountains.
The film's mono audio is adequate, and in spite of some harshness and distortion in loud spots, the dialogue and sound effects are balanced, with Barry DeVorzon's melancholic, restrained score.
Commentary host Mark Kermode clearly has a big list of juicy questions, and whenever Blatty wanders off the track, he gracefully guides the film's author back to finish his answer. The project's early genesis at Columbia Pictures and the legal ruling which permitted Blatty to take his original ideas are one of many anecdotes that maintain interest, and though a few silent gaps occur, Kermode sticks to his agenda and gets Blatty talking about location shooting, his prestigious cast, early casting choices Nicol Williamson and Michael Moriarty, and the various theological ideas that stem from Blatty's novel and personal life. It takes Kermode two efforts to clear up the film's release history, but between those responses are many comments concerning early cuts, longer scenes and dialogue exchanges - some of which are included in the DVD's deleted scene gallery - and Blatty also addresses the curious difficulty he had in getting dramatic writing work for studios while he was writing comedies in the 60s (including "A Shot In The Dark," for Peter Sellers) - a position that ironically reversed itself after "The Exorcist" broke box office records.
The DVD's deleted scene gallery includes a few extensions, wholly dropped scenes, and alternate material that appeared in the early re-released versions - such as the "knife dropping," and alternate letter reading. Picture quality is pretty fuzzy, but all scenes are widescreen, with the aforementioned scenes taken from mixed release prints, and the rest from an older video dub of Blatty's rough cut (with 'wild' sound and rough sound effects). Each scene is also preceded by helpful text that explains where, why, and how the scenes were to have functioned.
Kermode also hosts a featurette with brief interview segments with Blatty, offering some marginal information on Blatty's religious themes. Note: Some players may downconvert the featurette incorrectly when set for non-anamorphic display, clipping the image sides.
The Bio and Filmography section covers eight actors plus Blatty's career, and while nicely assembled, there's a few errors: Actor Neville Brand is referred to as America's 4th and 2nd highest decorated World War 2 veteran in different sections (it's really 2nd), and Moses Gunn is said to have appeared in Clint Eastwood's 1986 directorial debut, "Heartbreak Ridge" (really "Play Misty For Me," made in 1971, without Gunn in the cast).
Fans of Blatty's acerbic writing won't be disappointed with this disc, but it's clear the recently expanded "Exorcist" edition has reactivated the author's desire to tinker. His final comments on the DVD will either make you smile, or cover your eyes in fear…
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan