Altered States (1980) Review

Altered States was a good movie, right up to the shrooms . . .

Starting in the late ‘70s, my friend Ronnie and I went to see pretty much every new movie that came out. We had different approaches to films back then. He liked his movies simple and straightforward and easy to understand. If he’d had his way, every movie ever made would have starred Clint Eastwood or Chuck Norris. Anything that was a little different, a little deviant, a little weird (in short anything that confused him) was not only bad in his eyes, it was stupid and it made him really, really mad.

I’m not sure why I kept insisting we go to see things like Videodrome and Altered States, but there you go. Maybe I was just a little sadistic.

After winning three Oscars, Paddy Chayevsky was considered the sharpest, smartest screenwriter in Hollywood. But shortly after accepting his 1976 Oscar for Network, he ducked off to Boston to begin researching what would be his one and only novel. Loosely based on the work of John Cunningham Lilly (the neuroscientist who pioneered New Agey dolphin research and invented the isolation tank), the 1978 novel Altered States concerned a physiologist who uses sensory deprivation and hallucenogenic drugs to push the limits of human consciousness to the breaking point. It was a serious and intelligent novel and even with those two marks against it became a bestseller. When Columbia picked up the film rights however, everything went to hell.

While still in development the budget started to balloon, so they dumped the project off to Warners. Then, the story goes, twenty-six directors in turn passed on the film, in spite of the fact that it had a Chayevsky script. Warners finally and reluctantly, settled on Ken Russell.

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Now, Russell was known for making over-the-top, hallucinatory and shocking films like The Devils, Tommy and Lisztomania. Chayevsky, on the other hand, had written Marty. He was very smart, but very straight laced and from the start he and Russell were at each other’s throats over what the film was going to be. At the time William Hurt was a young and untested actor making his first feature and no one knew what to expect (thank god they had Bob Balaban along to give the thing a little star power). Then the special effects crew quit. But for all the hoo-hah and all the whispers about a troubled production, the film that hit theaters wasn’t half bad. One third bad maybe, but certainly not half. And it was a hell of a lot more interesting and challenging than most of its competition at the time, no matter what Ronnie might have said. 

While films about isolation tank experiments weren’t exactly new in 1980 (1963’s Dirk Bogarde vehicle The Mind Benders comes to mind, as does the very first episode of The Twilight Zone, 1959’s “Where is Everybody?”), but none of them had taken the idea quite this far before. 

A very serious, straight faced and believable Hurt turns in a smart performance as Dr. Eddie Jessup, a physiologist investigating altered states of consciousness, specifically religious visions, in schizophrenics. As a child see, he’d had visions of Mary and Jesus and assorted saints and now wants to understand where they came from. When he and his research partner (Balaban) find a dusty old sensory deprivation tank hidden away in the basement well, they start playing around to see what might happen. As he spends more time hallucinating in the tank, all that religious talk goes out the window. Instead, he comes to the conclusion that our original, primal selves are buried in the six-million year old recesses of our brains and that it’s possible to get in touch with this original self through the proper combination of sensory deprivation and magic mushrooms. And dammit, who’s to say he’s wrong? Anyone who’s done mushrooms alone in a tiny, bare apartment could’ve told him that’s exactly what would happen.        

Hints of where this is all leading come early, when Jessup comments to his future ex-wife (the always lovely Blair Brown, here playing an anthropologist) that schizophrenics have a knack for changing themselves physically in order to recreate their own perception of what they look like.

On the page it’s hard to imagine how you’d make a bunch of academic shop talk and a man floating in a tank for hours on end visually interesting, but Russell has a way. Some viewers might consider it unduly and pointlessly flashy, but “pointlessly flashy” sums up Russell in a nutshell. Jessup can’t just show up at a party and walk through the door. No, the room must be dark and his figure must be silhouetted and distorted by the intense white light behind him. Likewise, you can’t just have a normal sex scene. No, it has to take place in the fiery bowels of hell. And all this is long before we get to the hallucination sequences.

To modern audiences, the practical special effects used to create the onscreen hallucinations, the flashing lights, the fireworks, the images of three-eyed goats and crucifixions, probably seem laughable. The strange thing is, working with what he had on hand and editing it well (then combining the visuals with a great spooky score heavy on the percussion), Russell actually at times gets closer to recreating the sense of the real thing than any CGI effect.

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So, for the first two-thirds of the movie, Altered States really does look and feel like one of those crazy Ken Russell films, but with an intelligent and literate Chayevsky script. It’s smart and wild and captivating and different. It tosses around some radical, provocative ideas about God, the human brain, man’s past and his place in the universe. Things were going really well.  Then Russell (who admits to trying mushrooms while working on the film) seems to forget what movie he was making, convinced in his drug-induced befuddlement that it was a remake of the 1958 classic, Monster on the Campus. It’s just too bad that Monster on the Campus was a much better picture. Come to think of it, the last half hour here is more like a remake of 1953’s The Neanderthal Man and in that case it’s at least a toss-up.

The sad thing is and I say this as someone who loves a good ape man picture, up until the point that William Hurt starts randomly turning into an ape man and running around basements, it really had been a damned fine science fiction film, complete with small turns from John Larroquette and a pre-E.T. Drew Barrymore. 

As contentious as their relationship was, Russell and Chayevsky had taken some potentially deadly and unfilmable material and turned it into something entertaining and thought provoking.

But come the final moments  of Altered States, it’s clear no one knew exactly what the hell to do. “Let’s see, we need some kind of husband and ex-wife reunion here, we need to deal with that ape man issue and the only set we have left is this hallway here…so what say we just set up the cameras and wing it? Maybe add some computer graphics or something later to jazz it up?”

Without even seeing the final edit, Chayevsky removed his name from what turned out to be his last film. A few months later, he died. Russell, meanwhile, went on to make Crimes of Passion, a far worse film than this, with Kathleen Turner as a hooker and Anthony Perkins as an insane street preacher who hates hookers. Ronnie really liked that one.