“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, Blair Brown, 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.
- 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 Continue reading 62. ALTERED STATES (1980)