William Peter Blatty might seem a slightly odd candidate for discussion in this space. After all, he wrote and produced The Exorcist, whose enormous mainstream success makes it rather suspect as a cult film. Ditto for another of Blatty’s screenplays: A Shot in the Dark, which is arguably the best of the Pink Panther movies. But as a director, ah, there we start getting closer to cult status. He has made two films. The Exorcist III (1990) is his best-known effort, and is debatably a cult movie. Ve…y little debate is necessary regarding his other work: The Ninth Configuration (1980).
A couple of words about The Exorcist III to begin with. Of all the sequels and prequels to the landmark original, this is the only one that really stands up to scrutiny. It is, granted, a flawed work. It’s low-key, character-driven mood is broken by the sudden over-the-top pyrotechnics of the climactic exorcism, but we can’t entirely blame Blatty for that. The story, in a nutshell, goes something like this: Blatty gets the green light to film his novel Legion. He comes up with the perfect ending for his story. Studio suits tell him that the title has to be changed to The Exorcist III or no one will know it’s a sequel. Fine, he changes the title. Then he’s told there’s another problem: there’s no exorcism in the film, and how can it be called The Exorcist III if there’s no exorcism in it? You can figure out the rest.
But even with this enforced genuflection at the altar of the lowest common denominator, Blatty pulled of a film that is intelligent and atmospheric. George C. Scott (taking over from the late Lee J. Cobb) plays Lt. Kinderman, still haunted years after by the death of Father Karras (Jason Miller). He is mightily disturbed when confronted by a prisoner who not only claims to be the deceased (yet still somehow active) Gemini Killer, but also, some of the time, appears to be Karras (the rest of the time he’s Brad Dourif in full-on demented mode). A sustained sense of evil is created, one that at times rivals that in the original, and there are two standout scare scenes. I won’t spoil them here, but one is creepy, while the other is a jolt so expertly constructed that it remains branded on the cortex of anyone who has ever seen the film, especially if they caught it during its theatrical run. The DVD is a bare-bones affair, but at least it exists.
The Ninth Configuration is clearly a story very close to Blatty’s heart. It began as a novel called Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, was revised and retitled, and then arrived on celluloid with no enforced exorcism. Stacy Keach is the spookily impassive psychiatrist who arrives at a military mental institution. Said institution, located in a no-doubt extremely therapeutic gothic castle, is unusual in that no one knows if the inmates are really insane, or merely faking in order to escape unpleasant duty. Keach is supposed to figure out who’s faking, and who can be helped. He has secrets of his own, however. The story gives free reign to Blatty’s sense of humour, and much of the dialogue of the inmates is extremely funny. But the film is also a rigorous working out of a philosophical and religious thesis. While I don’t buy the film’s argument (in point of fact, I think it’s arrant nonsense), I find the presentation of this argument utterly fascinating, and hell, it’s not like movies with very precise ideas are exactly thick on the ground.
But forget all that highfalutin’ stuff. The film works too as a whacked gothic comedy which, bit by bit, shows signs of becoming something much darker. And transform it does, in a barroom scene that is one of the most intense on record. Blatty may have instruction in mind, then, but he hasn’t forgotten to entertain, and this he does mightily.
This film’s DVD incarnation has a more generous set of extras, including commentary from Blatty and some deleted scenes and alternate endings.
Both films are strong enough that one wishes Blatty had had more opportunity to direct. It’s been 17 years since The Exorcist III, and not much has been heard from Blatty since beyond his producer’s cut of the original Exorcist. Every so often, word emerges that he and William Friedkin are planning another collaboration, but it has yet to materialize, and I’d be surprised if it ever does. But even if this is all he’s going to give us, his body of work, while not large, is certainly memorable.