62. ALTERED STATES (1980)

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“You don’t have to tell me how weird you are. I know how weird you are… Even sex is a mystical experience for you. You carry on like a flagellant, which can be very nice, but I sometimes wonder if it’s me that’s being made love to. I feel like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God.”–Blair Brown to William Hurt in Altered States

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: William Hurt, , Charles Haid, Bob Balaban

PLOT: Dr. Eddie Jessup is a Harvard physiologist who used to experience religious visions as a teenager and is now studying the phenomenon of hallucinations caused by sensory deprivation in isolation tanks.  His inquiries into the nature of consciousness eventually take him to an isolated tribe in Mexico who use a powerful psychedelic mushroom in ancient Toltec religious rituals.  When he combines the magic mushrooms and the isolation tank, he finds that the mixture causes him to regress to an earlier evolutionary state.

Still from Altered States (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Dr. Jessup was based on the real life Dr. John Lilly, who invented the isolation tank and experimented with using hallucinogens in combination with it before moving on to research on communicating with dolphins.
  • Lilly tells the tale of a fellow researcher who took the drug ketamine and believed that he had turned into a “pre-hominid” and was being stalked by a leopard, which was presumably the kernel for the the idea of genetic regression.
  • This was William Hurt’s first starring role.
  • A young Drew Barrymore, in her film debut, briefly appears as one of Jessup’s children.
  • Paddy (Network) Chayefsky, the three-time Oscar winning screenwriter, adapted his own novel for the screen; he was so displeased with the final results that he had his name removed from the credits.  Chayefsky had originally written the story as a satire of the pretensions of the scientific community.  The original director, Arthur Penn, resigned after disputes with the writer.  Russell and Chayefsky reportedly argued on the set over the actors’ line readings and performances.  Chayefsky’s original novel is long out of print.
  • The seven-eyed lamb that appears in Jessup’s first vision comes straight from the Book of Revelations: “…in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes…” (Rev 5:6).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  One of the two major trip sequences (you can take your pick).  The crucified seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb from the first  is a popular favorite. In a sense, however, the quick-cut surrealistic montages play as a whole images that can’t be chopped up into constituent parts.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Ken Russell makes it weird. There’s no director more eager or better suited to make a science fiction movie about hallucinogenic drugs that bring about religious visions.  With its long, intense episodes of druggy delirium, Altered States may well be the greatest trip movie ever made (and it’s certainly the most expensive). Put it this way: you know the movie’s weird when the sight of a naked, simian William Hurt gnawing on a bloody gazelle is one of the film’s more humdrum visions.

Original trailer for Altered States

COMMENTS: There are fishes swimming in the sky behind William Hurt’s head.  He offers his dying father a Bible, but the Shroud of Turin falls over the old man’s face; his withered hand casts it onto the hospital floor where it bursts into flame.  A crucified lamb with the body of a man and seven eyes and seven horns appears and recedes in the sky, then reappears by a ruins where a sacrificial knife severs its head, causing its blood to flow onto a gilded Bible.  A one-celled organism explodes in a blast of psychedelic shapes and colors.  Hurt appears to be raping a woman, then the shadow of a goat’s head grows in the distance, filling the screen as John Corigliano’s shrieking, apocalyptic score roars in the background.

It’s all over in about a minute; Dr. Jessup (John Hurt) has been hallucinating in his isolation tank, remembering the terrible agony of his father’s death that caused him to reject the idea of God while simultaneously reconnecting with the ecstatic religious visions he had as a teenager.  As intense as this music video-style version of the Book of Revelations is, Jessup wants to push deeper to the edges of consciousness, so he travels to Mexico to take magic mushrooms in an ancient Toltec ritual setting.  There his real trip begins.  The shamans, with their faces painted skull-white, lit by a bonfire crackling inside a cave are freaky enough, but when the stuff kicks in he sees fireworks going off in the cavern and the Indians dancing to the drone of a tribal mariachi band before a stone mushroom idol decorated with skulls.  Soon enough the fireworks are going off inside his head; a miniature Dr. Jessup is having a tea party with his wife in front of a field of sunflowers.  There’s a mushroom cloud in the distance, a snake, a Mexican beaded lizard.  The snake wraps itself around his neck, the lizard turns into a nude Blair Brown.  Dust blows over Jessup and his wife and they turn to statues, which gradually return to dust.  When he sobers up, he finds he’s gutted a lizard while stoned.

Only 40 minutes in, Altered States peaks at this second (and very great) surreal montage, and the trip mellows out for a bit.  There are still plenty of small flashbacks—a scene set in Hell, the time Jessup hallucinates that he’s grown an opposable toe in the shower.  And there’s the 2001-style climax featuring as many exploding fluorescent amoebas as you would expect to see during the Big Bang, and an epilogue where Hurt turns into lava, then static, then changes colors and forms as bangs on the wall.  But Ken Russell realizes that he has to get the plot—some hokum about how Dr. Jessup’s experiments are taking his psyche back in time via molecular memory so that he can experience the moment of creation (with a stop-off in caveman times to snack on a gazelle)—moving.  Following that plotline turns the movie from a drug trip movie into a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the mushroom extract starting to physically transform Jessup into an apelike creature—which is in itself a weird turn for the story to take.

I started out discussing the trip sequences because they’re what you’re going to remember about Altered States.  They are not just illustrations of the movie’s story: they’re the story of the movie, and the plot exists for their sake rather than the other way around.  Ken Russell is a very competent storyteller, and he puts just enough care into the plot that it carries us along while we wait for the next bravura special effects sequence to blow our minds.  Silliness of the details aside, the director does build a genuine tension as Jessup continues his investigations into Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.  The secondary plot, involving Blair Brown as his pretty and charming but deliberately ignored anthropologist wife, gives the movie just enough of an emotional center to make us care about the principals.  Russell also coaxes a star-making performance from the debuting Hurt, who retains his boyish charm while being inhumanly obsessive, spouting pretentious mystico-scientific b.s., and gnawing on African ruminants.  Charles Haid also impresses as the disbelieving voice of reason who advises Jessup not to shoot up powerful untested psychedelics which seem to be causing morphological changes—his advice is so sound that he has to play the part as a blustering buffoon in order to make Hurt look sane by comparison.

Russell plays the absurd plot, a spiffed-up version of a 1950s mad scientist movie, totally straight.  The obvious satire and black comedy we would expect to see from Chayefsky, the caustic author of The Hospital and Network, is missing.  Instead, we get glossed-over pseudoscience delivered with absolute sincerity: Jessup explains, over a beer, that “our atoms are six billion years old, we’ve got six billion years of memory in our minds.  Memory is energy, it doesn’t disappear.  There’s a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousness, there has to be…”  Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when Jessup starts “externalizing his consciousness” to turn into a monkey-man, and then later on into the moment of creation itself.  Well, maybe we should be, but like a brilliant but utterly crackpot mad scientist, the movie believes fervently in its own theory, and for ninety minutes it’s able to convince us to sit there and hear it out, entertained if a bit bemused.  The climax is a humdinger of high-minded schmaltz, proposing that the Power of Love conquers all, genetic regressions and existential terrors alike.  As is so often the case in a Russell film, we can’t tell if the director is taking it all seriously, or putting the audience on; we don’t know whether we’re expected to laugh or suspend disbelief.

Although the stock plot comes from science fiction/mad scientist movies, Altered States is actually a trip movie.  The old LSD-exploitation movies like The Weird World of LSD, The Acid Eaters and The Trip were made solely to give the directors the opportunity to get arty and freak out audiences with kaleidoscope and fisheye lenses, trippy color schemes, and (crucially) hallucinations prominently featuring topless women.  Those flicks existed solely to showcase the drug experience for the curious and/or cheap, but there really was nowhere for them to go, plotwise.   The protagonist resists taking the hip new drug despite the proddings of his/her peers; eventually gives in and samples the forbidden fruit, endures a horrible, psychically scarring, yet highly entertaining delirium; and at the end is contrite for having fried his/her neurons.  Russell goes the exploitation auteurs one better.  Jessup’s hallucinations aren’t random, they’re set up by the script: his apocalyptic biblical trip flows directly from an earlier speech about his loss of faith after witnessing his father’s death.  During the Mexican phantasmagoria, Jessup’s immediate environmental inputs (dancing shamans, the mushroom icons graven on the cavern walls, lizards) meld with visions of the civilized European world of tea parties and umbrellas, and of the wife the doctor has supposedly left behind him (but who is nonetheless very much present in his subconscious).  The fact that the apparitions draw from Jessup’s particular psychology and preoccupations gives them extra power.  Pauline Kael complains that the hallucinations appear “like choppy slide shows,” but it’s the appropriate way for Russell to present them: their blazing speed suggests uncontrollable fury, they come at you too fast for your mind to process, and they help you to forgive the primitive green screen technology rather than focusing on the discrepancies in texture between the foreground and background images (although seen today, the very artificiality of the now low-tech process adds to its aura of oddness).  With Altered States Russell made what may be the greatest trip movie of all time; he has the Hollywood budget, and the vision, to turn psychedelics from a gimmick into an art form.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An aggressively silly head-horror movie… Russell clomps from one scene to the next, the psychedelic visions come at you like choppy slide shows, and the picture has a dismal, tired humanistic ending.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

“This one has everything: sex, violence, comedy, thrills, tenderness… It opens at fever pitch and then starts soaring—into genetic fantasy, into a precognitive dream of delirium and delight. Madness is its subject and substance, style and spirit…It keeps threatening to go bonkers, then makes good on its threat, and still remains as lucid as an aerialist on a high wire. It moves with the loping energy of a crafty psychopath, or of film makers gripped with the potential of blowing the moviegoer’s mind out through his eyes and ears. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Altered States.”–Richard Corliss, Time (contemporaneous)

“If it is not wholly visionary at every juncture, it is at least dependably – even exhilaratingly – bizarre. Its strangeness, which borders cheerfully on the ridiculous, is its most enjoyable feature… The film is in fine shape as long as it revels in its own craziness, making no claims on the viewer’s reason. But when it asks you to believe that what you’re watching may really be happening, and to wonder what it means, it is asking far too much. By the time it begins straining for an ending both happy and hysterical, it has lost all of its mystery, and most of its magic.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Altered States (1980)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

John C. Lilly Homepage – info on the decidedly (and delightfully) flaky Dr. Lilly, mostly focused on his research into communicating with dolphins

Strange/True: Isolation Tanks and Altered States – background on Lilly’s isolation tank experiments

DVD INFO: The Warner Home Video edition is light on extras, containing only trailers and text bios of cast and crew.  Dishearteningly, Warner caters to yahoos by offering a full-frame version of the movie on the flip side of the dual disc (using dual-sided discs decreases picture quality).  Who hates those tiny black strips so much that they’d rather watch a version of the film with the sides hacked off?

UPDATE: Warner released a remastered DVD of the film (buy) in November 2010 (with no extras beyond the theatrical trailer). The Blu-ray (buy) followed in 2012.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Ayla.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

12 thoughts on “62. ALTERED STATES (1980)”

  1. Wow this sounds crazy! The only Russell film I’ve seen is TOMMY, which I liked for the visuals but not so much the story. I’ll have to check this one out next.

  2. This deserves a SE release, but it’s not going to get it from Warners, unfortunately. If you’re in the NYC area, check it out with Russell in attendence, at the RUSSELLMANIA! retrospective next week.

    1. Thanks for the notice about RUSSELLMANIA, L. Rob. I will include it in next Friday’s “Weird Horizon.” Here’s the link to the Lincoln Center information page. One point: the page doesn’t list Altered States as one of the movies to be screened, unfortunately (it looks like the series only covers the director’s work from 1969-1977; maybe there’s a second part planned?). There are still some great films to check out, though, including Tommy and The Devils. Almost of of Russell‘s movies are candidates for the List.

  3. Just checked to post the link – my bad. ALTERED STATES isn’t part of the series, but most of his other work including THE DEVILS, SAVAGE MESSIAH, and LIZSTOMANIA is…

    1. This movie was not a waste. You clearly are not educated enought to understand the great phsycological aspects of this film.

  4. I know a few people who hold this opinion of the whole of Ken Russell’s output, but personally I love the old reprobate. I like the fact that his work seems to rouse very strong emotions at both ends of the spectrum. If push comes to shove I’d rather watch a film that angries up my blood a bit than one that I find tedious and boring. Plus I think having had a Catholic education many years ago helps!

    1. It’s not that the film elicited so much “strong emotions” other than that the sappy ending pretty much ruined it all for me. That ending does reduce all the film’s great trips to mere gimmicks more than the pseudo-scientific babble.

    2. I first discovered Ken Russell when I was old enough to be intrigued and astonished by his passion and bizarre aesthetic but not quite old enough to appreciate his dense subtext and artistry. As I’ve gotten older and better understand his vision and voice he’s overtaken most of my other favorite directors in my affections. It seems anathema to say but there’s almost always a tremendous subtlety and fine sense of detail beneath all of the passionate bombast–he manages to cram more mind-blowing ideas per minute into his films than any other director whose work I am acquainted with. He was absolutely fearless as an artist and although he sometimes failed spectacularly he was single minded in following his muse wherever it led him. He was so brazenly original and idiosynchratic that I think we’re only just now starting to catch up to what he was doing and saying 40+ years ago!

  5. When someone tells me ‘It’s a Ken Russell movie’, that usually sums it up for me – but as an owner and quoter of copies of ‘Lair of the White Worm’, ‘Tommy’, and ‘Lisztomania’, you can tell which way the tally goes. I think I saw Lisztomania in the queue, so I’ll wait until then to get too comment-happy.

    1. Actually, Lisztomania is not officially in the review queue right now, although we do expect to eventually get to almost every Ken Russell movie (we’ll be skipping Whore and maybe a few others). Feel free to officially suggest it on the suggestion thread. Allow 4-6 months for processing.

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