The Film: Altered States
The Principles: Starring William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid and Drew Barrymore. Written for the screen by Paddy Chayefsky (as Sidney Aaron) based on his novel. Directed by Ken Russell.
The Premise: A brilliant Harvard scientist conducts experiments on himself involving hallucinatory drugs and isolation chambers in an attempt to find the ultimate truth on how life began and its overall meaning. As a result he begins to suffer from bizarre physical changes to his body pointing towards a full evolutionary regression to the original primordial state of man.
Is it any good: It’s a full on head trip that’s my all-time favorite Ken Russell film next to The Devils and one of the most intelligent psychedelic brain bombs I’ve ever seen. More than just a mere “drug” movie, Altered States is part science fiction, part horror, but ultimately it’s one of the weirdest love stories ever imagined. Filled to the brim with enough drugged out religious visions to make Alejandro Jodorowsky freak the fuck out, it also boasts an excellent cast, awesome special effects, plus a story that’s somewhat silly, yet under Russell’s brilliant direction comes off as both compelling and eerie as hell.
You can also credit an incredibly talented cast of actors that sell the insanity with perfectly committed performances, most particularly a very young William Hurt in one of his first lead roles as the obsessed, introverted Dr. Eddie Jessup – a Faust freak with an intense desire to unlock the mystery that separates both life and death through a series of “controlled” experiments inside isolation tanks while under the influence of an intense hallucinogen he recovers from a powerful drug trip he has with some crazy old Mayans in a Mexican cave. Blair Brown gives a wonderfully authentic performance as Jessup’s estranged wife Emily, whose love and devotion is the only thing connecting him to reality. Rounding out the cast are the brilliant character actors Bob Balaban and Charles Haid as Jessup’s scientist friends helping him with his work. They each have their own special way of dealing with all the weirdness going on around them.
This is one of Russell’s most visually stunning films and that’s really saying something, as well as being his most straightforward narrative piece. His approach to the novel by Paddy Chayefsky is bold; it’s abstract expressionism with a kind of hyperrealism propelling it along like a fever dream. The amazing visuals are highlighted by some sublime prosthetic transformation sequences courtesy of the legendary Dick Smith. Both the primordial monkey man and the cosmic blob creature that is the centerpiece of the mind-bending finale still hold up as fantastic cinematic creations to behold. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a big shout out to the late master cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Rolling Thunder, Blade Runner, Cutter’s Way) whose images were always a sight to behold. The perfectly backlit shot of Blair Brown’s first vision of William Hurt as the love of her life standing in the doorway of a college party is visually breathtaking.
Is it worth a look: It’s one of the most emotionally and intellectually stimulating science fiction films from that era, as well as a visually explosive psychedelic feast for the eyes, but at its core Altered States is a bizarrely romantic love story. We watch the central character’s journey result in a painful epiphany on the true meaning of the universe, which results in his realization that the only thing preventing us from being swallowed up by the dark abyss is our ability to feel love for one another, with or without the use of dangerous hallucinogens. I recommend taking the trip.
Random anecdotes: There was notorious battling on the set between author Paddy Chayefsky and director Ken Russell over the general tone of the film. Even though Russell insists that not one word of dialogue was altered from Chayefsky’s script, he remained “impossible to please.” Apparently Chayefsky’s biggest gripe was the “heightened” performances by the actors. This resulted in the writer removing his name from the script credits and replacing it with the pseudonym “Sidney Aaron”, the two being Chayefsky’s real first and middle names.
This is Drew Barrymore’s film debut as Jessup’s baby daughter.
The popular 80’s new wave band a-ha copied the visual aesthetic of the psychedelic Adam and Eve finale of Altered States in the music video to their hit Take On Me.
Cinematic soul mates: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Holy Mountain, Prince of Darkness, The Fly, and Jacob’s Ladder.