Altered States (1980)


(director: Ken Russell; screenwriter: from the book by Padddy Chayefsky/Padddy Chayefsky; cinematographer: Jordan Cronenweth; editor: Eric Jenkins; music: John Corigliano; cast: William Hurt (Eddie Jessup), Blair Brown (Emily Jessup), Bob Balaban (Arthur Rosenberg), Charles Haid (Mason Parrish),Dori Brenner (Sylvia Rosenberg), Charles White Eagle (Brujo); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Howard Gottfried; Warners Home Video; 1980)

“Visually dazzling loopy drug film.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Flamboyant Brit filmmaker Ken Russell (“Women in Love”/”The Devils”/”Mahler”)directs his first American film. It’s a visually dazzling loopy drug film done in Russell’s usual self-indulgent excessive style. He creates an unintelligible combo sci-fi and horror film, one that’s so off kilter and absurd it remains watchable only as an entertaining assault on the senses. It’s a mad scientist flick based on the novel by the late Paddy Chayefsky, who wanted his name removed from the screen-credits (using the pseudonym of Sydney Aaron). The author objected that Russell didn’t take his drug experiment story seriously and took even less seriously his dedicated scientist’s story of his struggles to find the truth in his risky scientific investigations no matter the sacrifices required, as he uses himself as the subject of his experiments. Instead Russell saw it as a campy riff on an 1960’s acid trip that goes bonkers and makes no sense because it’s not supposed to make sense.

Eddie Jessup (William Hurt, his film debut) is a smug Harvard psycho-physiologist professor who is studying the human consciousness, who wants to delve into the true inner-self and establish man’s links to the universe. He treks to rural Mexico and takes a strange brew of an hallucinatory mushroom that’s prepared by primitive Indians, resulting in a weird trip that explores his unconscious. Eddie returns to campus with the untested complex drug and begins unauthorized experiments in the lab of his uptight colleague Dr. Mason Parrish (Charles Haid), and is monitored by his assistant, Arthur Rosenberg (Bob Balaban), when he begins experimenting by placing himself in an isolation sensory-deprivation tank while on the drug. After hooking the boss man up with EEG and EKG wires, Arthur tape records his accounts of what he is experiencing.

Eddie, at one point, transforms himself genetically into an ape-like figure (primitive man) with urges to kill, as he does just that at the Boston zoo by killing a sheep. When his serious anthropologist estranged wife, Emily (Blair Brown), returns from studying baboon sounds in Nairobi, she takes note her obsessive hubby is regressing into a primate and intervenes with love as the cure-all for everything and reaches him before the unsympathetic self-absorbed turd of a professor devolves into a state of non-being.

It’s all kitsch, not to be taken seriously for a moment. But it’s fun when it sticks to its mad psychedelic visions (crucifixions and all, with great special effects by Bran Ferren and eye-catching special makeup by Dick Smith), only to crash when it tries to land on its feet with a weary humanistic ending that makes less sense than when the film made no sense.