THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

The Ninth Configuration

1980, USA

Starring: Stacy Keach (Col. Vincent Kane), Scott Wilson (Capt. Billy Cutshaw), Jason Miller (Lt. Frankie Reno), Neville Brand (Maj. Marvin Groper), Moses Gunn (Maj. Nammack), Joe Spinell (Lt. Spinell)

Director: William Peter Blatty

Viewed: Streaming

Transfer Quality: Excellent

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This is one of the strangest and most unsettling films I’ve seen in a long time, and it totally caught me off guard…I mean with Keach in the lead I was hardly expecting anything cerebral, and the awesome poster art suggested some kind of sci-fi, action/adventure, horror crossover. It wasn’t until the opening credits were rolling that I realized this was written and directed by William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist. Quick pause and a Google search later and I understood that Blatty imagined the novel this was based off of, Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, to be the sequel to The Exorcist.

Admittedly, l spent the first 10 minutes of this with mallet in hand just waiting to ring the gong and be done with it, but The Ninth Configuration really grew on me, proving itself to be extremely interesting and unpredictable. In many ways the movie reminded me of other deep and quirky self-aware black comedies…like Catch 22 or Dr. Strangelove.

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The film opens with Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), a military psychiatrist, arriving at an army mental facility located in an old castle in the Pacific Northwest. Some of the inmates seem to be there for legitimate reasons, but it’s hinted at that some might just be taking the piss out of the establishment to get a pass on service. Kane is there to sort this all out, however, we soon learn that his method to remedy their ills is to indulge the inmates’ every whim.

As Kane interacts with the patients, he gravitates toward troubled astronaut Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson). Though not explicitly mentioned in the film, it turns out that Cutshaw is the connection to The Exorcist, as it was his brief encounter with Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) in full possession mode that drove him to the existential meltdown that caused him to abort his space mission and landed him in the castle of chaos. Through the interplay of Kane’s cool and certain insistence on a higher power and Cutshaw’s utter nihilism, the film becomes a thought experiment testing the limitations of each notion.

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I was quite blown away by all of the performances in the film, with the standouts being the duo of Jason Miller (The Exorcist) as Lt. Frankie Reno and his sidekick Lt. Spinell (of course, played by Joe Spinell of Godfather and Maniac fame) who spend the film working on a production of Hamlet for dogs. Apparently Spinell hounded (no pun intended) Blatty so much that he created a character for him in the screenplay that didn’t exist in the original novel. But it’s Keach who gives the performance of a lifetime here, sometimes seeming to channel HAL 9000 in his calm unwavering reactions to the exploits of the inmates, but harnessing a palpable and jarring rage in the bar fight scene.

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My only real critique of the film is that it should have been about 30 seconds shorter. For me, the trite reveal in the final scene sacrificed all of the heavy lifting that Blatty did throughout this pretty masterfully directed debut for the simplicity of a Hallmark card ending.

I’ll try to forget that last few seconds ever happened.

(DC)

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Nate Wilson: NW  Devon Cahill: DC  Matt Average: MA

EATEN ALIVE (1976)

Eaten Alive (aka Death Trap)

1976, USA

Starring: Neville Brand (Judd), Marilyn Burns (Faye), Robert Englund (Buck),Stuart Whitman (Sheriff Martin), Mel Ferrer (Harvey Wood), Crystin Sinclair (Libby Wood) Carolyn Jones (Miss Hattie), William Finley (Roy), Roberta Collins (Clara Wood), Kyle Richards (Angie)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Viewed: Streaming

Transfer Quality: Very nice transfer!

Probably my biggest takeaway from this film is that while a scythe looks cool and makes for great promotional poster art, it is ridiculously cumbersome as a murder weapon. Oh, and that Nile crocodiles in Texas can both shrink in size when pursuing prey in tight quarters and eat several adult-sized humans in a single night.

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Hooper again exploits our deep-seated collective fear of backwoods Texas to explore something I’m still not quite able to put my finger on in the horror hotel genre meets Jaws flick, Eaten Alive. Apparently Hooper had some creative differences with the producers that lead to some scenes being helmed by a different director. Perhaps this can explain away why this movie has so many elements that could have made it great, but still manages to fall short. In the end this is a pretty clunky film, but with some cool components, great cast and soundtrack, and a campy plastic crocodile that morphs into different sizes that make it worth checking out.

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So the set-up: The film opens at a sleazy country brothel run by Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones, The Addams Family) with “Name is Buck, I’m rarin’ to fuck,” Buck (Robert Englund, Nightmare on Elm Street) trying to force newbie prostitute Clara Wood (Roberta Collins, The Big Doll House) to do pervy stuff she doesn’t wanna do. Of course, Miss Hattie takes the good ‘ol boy Buck’s side in the dispute and banishes Clara from the whorehouse. Well, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for poor Clara as she stumbles over to the Starlight Hotel, a dilapidated mess of a place in the swamp where she meets a similarly dilapidated mess of a mental case, Judd (Neville Brand, Mad Bomber, Stalag 17), who owns it. Not to spoil too much, but it doesn’t end well for Clara or just about any man, woman, monkey, or small dog that happens to find themselves at the Starlight that evening.

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While watching this I kept wondering what Judd’s motivation is for undertaking all these killings. At first, he seems to be exacting revenge for all of the abominations and iniquities of the world embodied in the guests he encounters at his hotel. We know he’s definitely got a thing against prostitutes, but it’s certainly not a consistent motivation to kill. For example, he also chases a little kid under the house, with the scythe, no less…a pursuit that smolders throughout the film, but he ties her mother up to the bed without killing her. He mumbles to himself at times, so I’m guessing he’s hearing voices, but that’s never clarified. There’s also this thing where he takes off his glasses when he kills. Maybe an alter ego he takes on? Anyway, don’t expect any of this to be explained at any point. Judd’s just a creepy guy who acts nice and then ends up killing you for no real reason…first with a pitchfork and then with a scythe. And, yes, as the title gives away, Judd doesn’t quite finish off any of his victims, so they’re each “eaten alive” by a giant crocodile that Judd keeps in the bog next to his hotel.

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While leaving things unexplained is what gives the horror in Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre such depth and intensity, it just doesn’t work here. In my opinion, this comes from Hooper’s decision to film the entire movie on a sound stage. I will say first that the genius of this is that it allows him to create a discrete and completely fictional universe, where the rules of the real world don’t necessarily apply. The dominant red hue cast in the hotel scenes really does create an alternate reality kinda feel that intensifies just how cut off from sanity the hotel is. The downside, of course, is that in the process it cuts the viewer off from any sense that this is real, and forces us to start finding holes in the narrative leaving us asking questions like “why any of this is happening?” In Chainsaw, it’s precisely the documentary feel that allows the viewer to abandon need for explanation and join the fictional victims in full panic mode. In Eaten Alive, only confusion results.

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Finally, as ludicrous as the plastic croc is in this, I will say it is pretty absurdly amazing every time it appears on screen. Also, the crescendo of carnage in the final scene is intense enough not be missed. Unfortunately, it’s the only scene that even comes close to the level of anxiety that Chainsaw produces.

Although not quite a “for Hooper completists only,” and not among his top films, I would definitely recommend checking it out.

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MAD BOMBER (1973)

THE MAD BOMBER (aka The Police Connection) (1973)

Director: Bert I. Gordon

Starring:  Chuck Connors (William Dorn), Vince Edwards (Lt. Geronimo Minneli), Neville Brand (George Fromley)

Music: Michel Mention

USA

Viewed:  Streaming, Amazon Prime

Transfer Quality: Good

MadBomber

It’s people like you who make our world filthy my friend. You’re a pig.

—William Dorn

Bert I. Gordon’s (Necromancy, Food of the Gods) film opens with a cool street shot of early 70s LA and a very Lurch-esque Chuck Connors (yes, The Rifleman) storming down the boulevard, physically confronting a litterer, and setting him straight with the line above. Connors pulls off a masterful performance here as William Dorn, the Mad Bomber…the sociopath you just can’t help but fall in love with. You’ll immediately notice how much Connor’s Dorn must have been an influence on Michael Douglas in Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film, Falling Down. Similar to Douglas’ character, you can’t help but gleefully live through Dorn as he confronts purveyors of society’s ills with a puritanical and righteous insanity. Whether he’s taking a Porsche owner’s keys (albeit a 914) and depositing them in a nearby mailbox, laying into the supermarket clerk for denying him the sale price on a can of peaches, or kicking a couple street toughs’ asses when they try to mug him for his grocery bag, he’s every man’s hero. Only problem is, that grocery bag always has a bomb in it.

As with most films I love, the coolest thing about this movie is how it outdoes itself with ridiculousness at every turn. It’s the kind of infectious insanity that makes you just want to believe it could all be possible. Like when Dorn returns home from his litter policing, grabs an already ticking alarm clock (out of a cupboard full of them, haha) and throws together a bomb in 30 seconds with some sticks of dynamite he just leaves laying around on his kitchen table…all while eating a donut. Or, when he steals a bright yellow motorcycle with a sidecar from some hippies to make a bomb run. On top of all this, he’s gotta be the most conspicuous guy in LA. I mean, look at that picture. Yet, he still manages to elude suspicion.

The true stroke of ludicrous genius in the plot of this film is that the only one who can ID the bomber is a serial rapist who just happens to see Dorn bringing a bomb into a hospital while he’s busy attacking a woman in a storage closet. This sets off an almost transcendental assault on reason that involves Lieutenant Geronimo Minneli (Vince Edwards…you know, Dr. Ben Casey!), an overzealous cop armed with a police super computer who enlists an army of scantily clad policewomen to roam the streets “just asking to be raped” in order to net the witness. Two interesting facts learned from these sequences: First, circa 1973 the LAPD had a seemingly unlimited supply of hot young female officers. Second, if you were a male out after dark in LA in 1973, you were most definitely a rapist. Every woman they put out on the streets gets attacked in matter of seconds as the cops scoop up the suspects. Naturally, none of the creeps they catch the first night match, so they have to do it again a second night. Eventually they get their man, the cool, calm, collected, and sexually twisted dude, George Fromley, quite brilliantly portrayed by Neville Brand. All of this culminates in an amazing composite drawing scene where the sketch artist produces a photo quality rendering of the bomber from Fromley’s hazy description. It’s just undescribably good.

Ok, I’ve spoiled enough of this for you already. It’s a must-see in my opinion.

Plus, the ending is a real BLAST! Har har… (DC)

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NW: Nate Wilson    DC: Devon Cahill   MA: Matt Average