31 Days of Hell: Altered States (1980) - Reviewed

The late British enfant terrible Ken Russell, that often brilliant and outrageous provocateur behind such controversial classics as The Devils and Crimes of Passion, was typically known for working outside of the mainstream despite having enormous critical and commercial success in his homeland.  Usually for a reasonable budget, the director could pull off some impressive technical feats, sport lavishly innovative production design and always operated by the beat of his own drum.  After two decades in the film scene, Russell embarked on something completely different and outside of his ordinary approach to filmmaking with the 1980 science fiction thriller Altered States.  Based on the novel by Paddy Chayefsky and being the cult director’s one and only time working within the American Hollywood studio system, his third picture for Warner Brothers is among the most powerfully psychedelic and mind-blowingly bizarre horror films ever made. A simple mad-scientist story of Faustian pursuit and science gone awry, Altered States concerns college university professor Dr. Edward Jessup (William Hurt in a splendid debut) obsessed with decoding alternate states of consciousness through the use of sensory deprivation research in isolation tanks under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.  Needless to say, the professor’s psychological experiments initially conducted with students before shifting the focus on himself, spirals out of control and touches on everything from bodily transformation, inexplicable metaphysics, terrifying hallucinations and even old fashioned wolf man tropes.  It’s a genre-shifting batshit smorgasbord that could have easily flown apart into a laughable mess were it not for the masterful Russell’s taut and sharp direction, gleefully skirting a tightrope walk between melodrama, stark terror of the unknown and top-hat-and-cane cynical farce without ever coming across as tonally inconsistent.  Not many science fiction horror movies have the ability to careen into absurdity and successfully traverse back into horror again.

Hey. Care to take a warm bath?
Russell’s usual epic religious transgressions and sensory assault aside, Altered States has many virtues going for it that will definitely attract and entertain those unaccustomed to his work.  At the time, the big budget science fiction horror venture boasted state of the art visual effects which still manage to impress the eyes even by today’s standards, thanks in large part to makeup effects wunderkind Dick Smith who designed a number of remarkable bodily transformation animatronic effects that are almost seamless.  The film also sports prototypical CGI in certain scene, among the very first to ever use it in a film, and many of the hallucinatory psychological firestorms seen throughout the film can’t help but echo the visual effects genius of Douglas Trumbull.  Further still, the film boasts a truly avant garde score by John Corigliano, who garnered an Academy Award nomination for arguably the most atonal film score ever composed for a Ken Russell film since Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ score for The Devils, taking the listener down uncharted sonic territory.  Not to mention this piece of sensory overload was one of the few films shown in theaters with the specially designed “Megasound” format, giving a 6-track surround sound mix with heavy bass levels which worked to further disorient and overwhelm the audience member. 

And of course there’s the acting across the board, which ranges from calm and muted to hysterical, bombastic and even histrionic with characters talking over each other at the same time or screaming in unison.  You can see the evolution of a soon to be great and renowned actor in William Hurt’s mad scientist who makes the eccentric genius an obsessive but ultimately curious man eager to learn what he can even if the study places his life in danger.  Equally strong is Blair Brown as Emily, a biological anthropologist who falls madly in love with Jessup but also fears for his sanity (and eventually her own) as he becomes further ensconced in the dangerous experiment.  Bob Balaban and Charles Haid turn over humorous supporting roles as two veteran researchers hastily assist Jessup in his mad pursuit, providing the viewer with down-to-Earth characters we can relate to outside of the increasingly insane bubble forming around Jessup and Emily. 

That’s not to say the making of Altered States was a hunky dory experience for all involved however.  For instance, Warner Brothers, still bitter over the scandal created by The Devils, urged writer Paddy Chayefsky to pick a different director over Russell out of fear of courting controversy yet again.  Chayefsky insisted and in a curious twist of fate, the figure who bore the most contention towards Russell was Chayefsky himself.  The two artists fought constantly over the dialogue and tone with Chayefsky objecting to Russell’s bombastic acting and tongue-in-cheek flights of fancy where Russell felt Chayefsky’s self-seriousness came across as pretentious.  Another problem involved Chayefsky’s reverence for his own dialogue, with Russell wanting to improvise and to dodge Chayefsky, Russell had his actors shout their lines at the same time to toss in ad libs in the process.  Eventually Russell succeeded in banning Chayefsky from the set who tried and failed ultimately to have Russell, his initial first choice, removed as director.  Furthering the bitter feud growing between Russell and Chayefsky, Chayefsky ultimately took his pen name off the film and used his biological name Sidney Aaron instead.  To make matters worse, Russell picked up a drinking habit while working on the film which, compounded with the much publicized row with Chayefsky, led to Russell’s brief foray into Tinseltown becoming a short lived stint. 

With all things considered, Altered States is a splendidly psychedelic thriller full of Russell’s trademark sensual excess, audiovisual overload and heightened, deliberately over the top performances and still breathtaking visual effects that stand the test of time in today’s effects driven cinematic arena.  Not all of it will make immediate sense nor should it, as it’s a traditional mad scientist story filtered through the prism of intellectual and abstract science fiction stories like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Man Who Fell to Earth.  It also has, for all its terror images and avant-garde soundtrack, a real sense of impish whimsy about itself.  Contrary to the hard and heavy madness of The Devils or Crimes of Passion, you can tell Russell is clearly having fun in spite of later expressing his own disappointment with the finished product.  Years later Russell would take the tongue-in-cheek approach to horror as far as it could go with The Lair of the White Worm, his vampire monster movie with Hugh Grant.   And yet where that film made a swan dive into high camp, Altered States maintains a steady tightrope walk between hard sci-fi horror and buffoonery where you’re not always sure how seriously he’s taking the material, keeping the audience on their toes by not warning you when he’s ready to yank the rug out from under you.  Unfortunately Russell never did make another mainstream Hollywood effort after Altered States which is a real shame, as the late master filmmaker clearly understood the big studio picture better than the bigwigs financing it.


- Andrew Kotwicki

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