A few weeks ago on Schlock & Awe, I wrote a piece about Ken Russell’s The Devils, calling it a brilliant mix of satire and sacrilege that’s still controversial today. This week, we explore arguably the director’s most commercial work, but it’s still full of his strange imagery, bizarre concepts, and his penchant for religious iconography mixed with overt sexuality. He literally couldn’t get enough of that. Russell had the benefit of multi-Oscar-winner Paddy Chayefsky adatping the screenplay of his own novel as a basis, though Chayefsky would pretty immediately thereafter denounce the movie. Like all of Ken Russell’s filmography, his 1980 film Altered States is a handful of meaty, interesting ideas about humanity wrapped in a big burrito of nuts.
Altered States explores the reaches of the human mind, our desire to meet our maker, and the primal urges we keep buried deep in our subconscious that signify the way we were thousands of years ago, evolutionarily. Most of the dialogue is the characters spouting intellectual and scientific jargon, somehow believably, about the nature of humanity, our connection with that nature, and how easy or difficult it is to tap into that nature. The main character is also a self-confessed arrogant narcissist who doesn’t see why people have relationships, and spends all his time taking drugs and lying in hyperbaric chambers. So that’s fun.
William Hurt stars as Dr. Eddie Jessup, the aforementioned narcissist, who is doing experiments on himself to record the effects of certain stimuli on the human brain. He’s an adrenaline junkie–almost a regular junkie too–who wants to experience the ultimate high. At the beginning of the movie, Jessup is floating in a chamber of water for hours and hours, slipping in and out of consciousness while his colleague Arthur (Bob Balaban) monitors him. Everybody thinks he’s crazy for doing these experiments. And guess what? He is, kinda.
Later, at a party Arthur throws, Jessup meets a beautiful young anthropology student named Emily (Blair Brown) with whom he gets on immediately. He tells her he’s emotionally unavailable and doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to give her what she wants, but because this is a movie, and because women in movies tend to like this type of d-bag, she decides to throw caution to the wind and sleep with him. Is he weird when having sex? You bet! He tells her he has visions of Jesus on the cross in the middle of their lovemaking and then we see a very flashy, videoy, very Ken Russelly montage of religious images made terrifying and sexual. Russell had some hang-ups, it’s pretty clear. I don’t think I’ve seen a single movie of his that doesn’t contain a sequence like this. Even his biopic of the composer Mahler had a lengthy sequence involving Nazis and crucifixion and things.
After a huge time jump, we find that Jessup and Emily have gotten married and had kids, but that he’s getting ready to leave her because, well, he’s a dick basically and doesn’t feel like being a husband anymore. When she goes off to study primitive peoples in Africa, he goes to Mexico with his friend to take part in some kind of spiritual ceremony using a very powerful hallucinogen. It’s even more powerful than he might have expected and he begins to feel something stir deep inside himself, but he can’t remember doing anything once he wakes up. He killed animals and things is what he did.
He returns to Harvard and wants to immediately begin testing this drug (which he took back with him in vials and whatnot) by ingesting it and placing himself in another chamber for hours at a time. He will shout out what he sees for Arthur to record. After another doctor friend of theirs, Mason (Charles Haid), forces a stoppage of the experiment, they find that Jessup’s throat had closed and he can only make guttural, almost animalistic sounds. He forces them to do an x-ray and they find out that his throat has actually metamorphosed, only briefly, and contains parts only found in the great apes. Pretty weird, huh?
Jessup begins experiencing random, physical changes when he’s not even under. They say several times that the drug stays in the brain for longer than LSD, which is a long frigging time, and it causes his arms to pulsate and his neck to bulge and then go away. He’s still fascinated and wants to keep going, much to the consternation of his friends and colleagues. He’s getting back further and further towards the beginning of life, saying that the brain houses all the history of the universe it just has to be tapped. After one late-night, unsupervised test on himself, the chamber is opened by a passing janitor and a caveman-looking creature pops out and begins running six kinds of amok around the lab and eventually escapes and makes its way to the zoo.
This is the part of the movie that kind of loses me. It was one thing if the drug was making him change, or even making him believe he’d changed and left the rest ambiguous, but this is him becoming a protohuman, who is clearly not played by William Hurt anymore, and who runs around jumping on things and killing gazelles in the zoo. This is a very lengthy sequence and it just kind of feels out of place, like the movie took itself pretty seriously until then, but a mostly-nude furry guy running around a zoo just gets silly.
Finally, the changes become too much and the energy he’s releasing puts people’s lives at risk, specifically Emily’s. It’s up to the power of love (or whatever) to make this all stop. I guess that works.
Like all of Ken Russell’s films, they only need to make sense to a point and the rest of it is intuited. There’s no explanation as to why this drug is doing what it does, or how it could possibly physically revert a person to a primitive state, but it does and there we are. The dialogue is all Chayefsky, with lengthy conversations about ideas and highly verbose characters, but the look and feel are all Russell, something which must have irked the screenwriting legend. He’s the only writer, for instance, to have gotten his name above the title of a movie. He died less than a year after Altered States came out, at the all-too-young age of 58.
The most impressive and aspect of the film is the special effects. This movie was made in 1979/1980, well before some of David Cronenberg’s or Stuart Gordon’s more undulating movie effects. Legendary makeup artist and effects guy Dick Smith was responsible for the complex and articulate “creatures” in the movie, which are really just Jessup’s internal beasts, and they are astonishing and kind of gorgeous to look at in their own disgusting way. This is probably Russell’s most effects-heavy movie and it really is a portent for the kind of effects R-rated ’80s sci-fi and horror would have in spades.
Overall, Altered States succeeds in what it’s trying to do, which I think is making you think and having weird things for you to look at. The acting, especially from Hurt, is terrific even despite them having to say really outlandish and hyper-scientific things. Aside from the bit with the apeman, it all feels very ethereal and paranormal and that stuff really lands well with me. And, hey, if you like seeing naked people with flashes of Jesus and things thrown in, then this movie, and all the movies of Ken Russell, will make you feel right at home.