Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane / Ninth Configuration, The (1980)

Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane / Ninth Configuration, The (1980)

“I don’t think evil grows out of madness; I think madness grows out of evil.”

Shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach) arrives at a castle housing mentally distressed veterans, including a former astronaut (Scott Wilson) who has lost his faith in humanity, and a lieutenant (Jason Miller) attempting to mount a Shakespearean production with dogs. Kane works closely with a colonel (Ed Flanders) to craft activities that will support the men in healing; but is shell-shocked Colonel Kane in need of support and healing himself?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Mental Illness
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Neville Brand Films
  • Stacy Keach Films
  • Veterans
  • Vietnam War

William Peter Blatty — best known as the author of The Exorcist (1971) and its Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation — made his directorial debut with this adaptation of his own novel, first published as Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane! (1966) and later reworked as a new novel entitled The Ninth Configuration (1978). His film remains a beloved cult favorite, with English critic Mark Kermode referring to it as an “extraordinary theological thriller” in which Blatty offers “scabrous satire with sanguine spirituality in one of the most genuinely bizarre offerings of modern US cinema.”

Kermode goes on to describe the film as “a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action.” With that said, he concedes it’s “a work of matchless madness which [nonetheless] 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.”

Unfortunately, I happen to fall in the latter camp. I’m not a personal fan of movies exploring “who’s really insane” — i.e., King of Hearts (1966), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), etc. — and this outing is no exception. It’s filled with countless lines of dialogue intended to highlight the patients’ wacky yet cultured personas:

“I am punishing the atoms. I am making an example of them.”
“This man treats crocodiles for acne!”
“The man in the moon tried to f**k my sister!”
“You wouldn’t know Kafka from Bette Davis.”
“Quit drinking buttermilk daiquiris in the closet.”
“Read the classics; it improves the whole respiratory system.”
“There’s nothing less attractive than a psychiatrist who pouts.”
“Listen, I know my rights: I want to see my urologist.”

Meanwhile, I don’t understand the humor in — or purpose behind — Miller attempting to stage Shakespearean works with dogs (and why does his own dog look like it’s covered in shaggy carpet?):

I’m equally uncertain why the film intentionally includes cinematic references (such as an inexplicable poster of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula on the wall).

The film’s “big reveal” about Keach midway through didn’t come as much of a surprise to me:

… and while I can imagine audiences at the time being appreciative of such a frank look at the life-altering PTSD experienced by so many Vietnam vets, I find it all overly calculated and heavy-handed. Watch for Neville Brand in an underdeveloped role as a military assistant:

… and other recognizable names and faces (Moses Gunn, Robert Loggia, Joe Spinell) in bit parts throughout.

Note: I fact-checked a distressing claim made by one character about the high suicide rates of psychiatrists, and sadly, it turns out to be true.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine sets and cinematography

Must See?
No, though of course it’s worth a look if you’re curious, given its enthusiastic fan base. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.


One thought on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane / Ninth Configuration, The (1980)

  1. First viewing (8/5/21). I’ll gladly sit in the “baffled dismissal” camp. Skip it.

    What a *miserable* viewing experience! Confusing and confused and relentlessly pretentious. A solid amount of dialogue is simply garbage. Attempts at humor fall flat. Pacing is non-existent.

    Actors flail in the service of nonsense. And all of this is just during the bulk of the film that takes place at the castle. *Then* it goes to the bar – and, man, is that whole section ever a frickin’ mess!

    My 8/5/21 viewing was not my first attempt at watching this. I actually tried 2 or 3 times in previous years but could not get beyond 10 or 15 minutes of it. On 8/5/21, I forced myself to get through it.

    Alas, unlike Mr. Kermode, I don’t feel there’s anything “extraordinary” about this piece of crap.

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