Altered States (1980)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #430

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Number of Views: Three
Release Date: December 25, 1980
Genre: Sci-Fi/Body Horror
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $15,000,000
Box Office: $19,853,892
Running Time: 103 minutes
Director: Ken Russell
Producers: Howard Gottfried, Daniel Melnick, Stuart Baird
Screenplay: Sidney Aaron
Based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky
Special Effects: Dick Smith, Rick Baker (uncredited)
Cinematography: Jordan S. Cronenweth
Score: John Corigliano
Editing: Eric Jenkins
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distributor: Warner Bros
Stars: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Miguel Godreau, Dori Brenner, Peter Brandon, Charles White-Eagle, Drew Barrymore, Megan Jeffers, Jack Murdock, Francis X. McCarthy

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Suggested Audio Candy

John Corigliano “Soundtrack Suite”

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The late Ken Russell was a true eccentric whose career as a film-maker spanned over fifty years until his eventual death in 2011. During that time he became known for his anal attention to detail and flamboyant visual style and amongst his many works were a number of notable films. Women in Love, The Devils, Tommy, Crimes of Passion, Gothic, and The Lair of The White Worm were all bat-shit crazy and demonstrated his knack for thinking outside of the box. However, it wasn’t until 1980 that he worked on his first all-American production with Altered States and it proved an exasperating experience for the Englishman.

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Based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky and a screenplay also written by him under the pseudonym Sidney Aaron, it was an incredibly troubled shoot and the pair spent much of the time at loggerheads over Russell’s treatment of his story. The director encouraged his casts to overact for the camera which angered Chayefsky, even though he actually followed his treatment closely. Russell became frustrated, accusing him of being impossible to please and eventually Chayefsky washed his hands of the project and disowned the movie completely. Months later he died at the age of 58, having never actually watched the final result.

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Despite the turbulent shoot, Altered States proved a unanimous success with critics and even ended up nominated for two Oscars, as well as making many of 1980’s top ten lists. Not bad considering Russell was actually 27th choice for director. His films weren’t always received well but critics largely agreed that this played to his strengths as a film-maker and it won him many fans Stateside. It also introduced both William Hurt and Drew Barrymore to audiences in breakout roles, the former excelling as Harvard professor Edward Jessup.

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Altered States is a film unlike any other from its epoch. It focuses on schizophrenia researcher Jessup’s sensory deprivation study which he conducts in flotation tanks while under the influence of psychotropic drugs such as LSD and Ketamine. His obsession with precognition leads him to Mexico where he hooks up with an indigenous tribe and that’s where things get really fucked up as he returns with a herbal tincture tainted with his own blood and continues taking it as he becomes increasingly fixated with his isolation tank, gradually devolving back into a primate. Confused yet? Fret not, it’s all part of Russell’s plan.

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Many of the actors actually tried out the flotation tank during filming and Hurt was the only one to actively hallucinate, suggesting he was the right man for the job. As he begins to mutate before our very eyes, the film metamorphoses alongside him, changing tone and eventually form as he steadily loses any remaining marbles. Russell is up to the challenge and even consumed psychedelic magic mushrooms during development to enable him to get in the zone. This culminated in a bad trip, which is exactly what Altered States feels like at times. After starting decidedly strong, it moves with an almost schizophrenic momentum as it twists and turns with the tenacity of a rattled serpent, before finally losing its mind, along with Jessup for a positively unhinged final act.

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Hurt is quite brilliant as leading man and his lucidity is infectious as we begin to believe that he is really onto something, despite the fact that his entire world is progressively bleeding away with every visit to the chamber. Russell’s film matches him stride for stride, expanding and contracting with each revelation and never sitting still for a solitary moment. The hallucinatory sequences, of which there are many, are wonderfully delirious and the dialogue is similarly off the chain, delivered with the typical full-steam-ahead gusto synonymous to the director’s many movies. There are moments of calm before the eventual storm but Hurt’s marvelously articulated turn keeps us invested, even once he finally locates his altered state and begins to transmogrify into a pre-hominid.

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One would imagine Edward Jessup hitting it off with Seth Brundle and perhaps question whether the chimp that unsuccessfully relocated from transporter pod 1 to 2 was actually Hurt himself. My conspiracy theory was soundly disproved a year later however as he showed up in The Accidental Tourist. Nevertheless, his turn led to a particularly sweet spell for Hurt who went on to star in Gorky Park, The Big Chill, Kiss of The Spiderwoman, Children of a Lesser God, and Broadcast News as demand became excessive based on his brilliant performance here.


Altered States is a true one-off and certainly not for everybody. Some may find it to be pretentious claptrap and admittedly Russell is at his most facetious throughout. However, for those of us familiar with the exclusive effects of mind-bending narcotics or willing to hook ourselves up in the isolation tank alongside him for 103 minutes, it represents science fiction at its most euphoric and, once seen, will likely never be forgotten. Poor Barrymore didn’t stand a chance on this evidence; it’s no small wonder that she ended up addicted on class A drugs by the age of twelve. I would imagine that she pick-pocketed Russell’s stash of mushrooms while he was suffering his bad trip. E.T. never made another film after working so closely with her in 1982 and the last I heard he was seen jacking up in a dumpster in Queens. See what you started Ken?

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Dread Factor: 4/5

For the Dread-Heads: Russell’s film is a nightmarish affair, replete with outlandish visuals which stick in your head long after the credits have rolled. It utilizes primitive CGI to glorious effect and manages to stay just the right side of utterly preposterous, while hinting regularly that it is about to spontaneously combust at any given moment. The effects from Dick Smith and an uncredited Rick Baker hold up remarkably well considering they’re well over thirty years beyond their evolution but it is the biblical imagery which many will find most unsettling.

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