The Film: 'Altered States' (1980), Dir. Ken Russell
Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: There's a funny story behind this one. For years, I thought 'Altered States' was directed by David Cronenberg and vowed that I'd get to it when I finally got the opportunity to dive into his filmography. And then I did. And then I realized 'Altered States' was directed by Ken Russell. And then I felt really stupid. And here we are. Okay, that's not a funny story, but you get the point.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: William Hurt is a university scientist with some pretty wacky ideas, most of which involve him getting inside of a strange device that tampers with human evolution, slowly transforming him into something that's not quite human and therefore has no normal human qualms against things like assault and murder and little things like that. Naturally, the evil dean tries to shut him down and a very angry, very mutated William Hurt must keep his experiment running by any means necessary. Meanwhile, there's a romantic subplot because there must be a romantic subplot.
I'm going to wager that only about 18% of that is accurate to the actual film, mainly because what I'm describing there sounds like a painful mishmash of Cronenberg's remake of 'The Fly' and every bad college-set horror movie ever made and 'Altered States's reputation as an overlooked horror/science fiction gem is a little too elevated for it to be that simple. Not to mention, this was directed by Ken Russell, a director more known for strange, often experimental, occasionally terrible but always surprising films, not generic "William Hurt Turns Himself Into A Beastie And Runs Amuck On Campus" movies. If that previous blind stab at the plot of this film was my Cronenberg-influenced, 1980s horror movie guess, I should probably make another knowing full well that this is a Russell film...
Can I try this again? I'm going to try this again.
William Hurt is a university scientist who's desperate to find a way for human beings to access closed off areas of their own minds. Years of research lead to a device that, when worn, "opens your mind," essentially making you completely aware of the universe around you (it turns out that the inner workings of the universe look like a lot of psychedelic lights shot with a swooping camera, intercut with close-ups of Hurt's sweaty face). The device proves enlightening, but also addicting and Hurt worries that he may be losing his mind. Are those strange things he's now seeing real, exposed thanks to his experiment, or a product of his newly damaged, deranged mind? An answer is never clearly given because Ken Russell doesn't give easy answers.
Better or worse? Hot or cold? You know what? You know what? Don't answer. I'll just see for myself.
Like 'Raging Bull,' 'Altered States' feels like one of the last, desperate gasps of 1970s filmmaking. That release date may say 1980, but everything about the film, from its methodical pacing to its intellectual take on science fiction tropes to the batcrap crazy personal touches that feel like they came from a slightly diseased mind to the armpit hair on the leading lady, feels like it was torn straight out of the most artist-driven, creatively fulfilling and occasionally self-indulgent decade in American cinema.
In the same way that 'Star Wars' signaled the end of this era, it signaled the end of thoughtful science fiction. 'Altered States' would feel perfectly at home with 1970s sci-fi films like 'The Man Who Fell to Earth,' 'Logan's Run,' 'Silent Running' and 'Colossus: The Forbin Project,' just to name a few. As vital as 'Star Wars' is, it certainly did a fine job putting a couple dozen nails in the coffin of challenging, weird and adult science fiction.
But let's not turn this into a 'Star Wars' pile-on. Let's talk about 'Altered States,' a movie that somehow manages to combine hallucinatory wackiness with tough science fiction while telling a story about how vital human connection is to our existences (and to the very survival of our species). In my defense, the story of 'Altered States' actually finds a weird halfway point between my duo of incredibly inaccurate musings: William Hurt (looking and acting very much like the William Hurt we know and love even though this is his first film) plays Eddie Jessup, a scientist who believes that other states of consciousness, like hallucinations, exist as real physical places. His experiments to explore this theory involve an isolation tank and a bizarre, possibly dangerous hallucinogenic substance he borrowed from a primitive Mexican tribe. If the terrifying and surreal hallucinations don't kill him, maybe his mystifying devolution into a lower life form will.
Truth be told, 'Altered States' is a mess, but it's one of those beautiful messes, an experience that is made all the more unique and exciting because of its flaws. Ken Russell is painting with a broad brush, throwing a couple dozen things at the canvas and hoping a couple of them stick. Some things work, like the stunning hallucinations, which make little literal sense but perfectly capture the random chaos of your worst nightmares (they're made all the more unnerving thanks to their obvious physical construction -- I don't know about you, but I dream in matte paintings, stop motion and jump cuts, not CGI). Some things don't, like an interlude with an absurdly silly were-caveman, who runs amuck, assaults college janitors and feasts on the inhabitants of the local zoo.
Still, the very fact that 'Altered States' contains terrifying hallucination sequences and extended sequences of a killer primordial creature should tell you that this movie is unlike anything you've ever seen before. Even when the film falls into a lull, you can be assured that a terrific display of baffling weirdness resides just around the corner, ready to win back your heart.
This "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to storytelling is more commonly found in B-level genre projects (where it's used to balance out otherwise poor production quality), so it's strange to see it used in a film that is so beautifully and professionally made. In a recent New Yorker profile, director Guillermo Del Toro decried that genre films have become low budget, slapdash affairs, never being treated like "real movies," often looking and feeling like second tier productions. With its hit-and-miss director and cast of (at the time) unknowns, 'Altered States' may not have necessarily felt like a classy production at the time of release, but it's aged gracefully. With its naturalistic actors, subtle cinematography and make-up effects that rival Rick Baker's groundbreaking work on 'An American Werewolf in London,' 'Altered States' feels very much like a "real movie."
It's funny that I once thought 'Altered States' was a David Cronenberg film, mainly because it has a lot in common with much of his filmography. Psychological breakdowns. Disturbing body horror. Relationships crumbling in the face of dangerous super-science. Protagonists pushed to an absurd, often tragic breaking point that will change their existence forever. In many ways, 'Altered States' would make a fascinating double feature with Cronenberg's remake of 'The Fly.' After all, they're both stories of science going awry and wreaking havoc on well-meaning men whose lives are ultimately placed in the hands of the women who love them.
The real reason to draw this comparison is to take a look at their differences, namely their conclusions (SPOILERS for both films follow). 'The Fly' ends with our hero, now something less than human, willingly facing the business end of a shotgun wielded by his disbelieving former girlfriend and begging for a quick end. This character has taken one step too far, tampered with the fabric of what human beings are meant to do and a cold, unforgiving universe ensures his lengthy, painful demise. 'Altered States' looks ready to come to a similar conclusion, with Eddie Jessup transformed into a mass of sentient matter, ready to fade away into a primitive universe free of human thought and feeling. Is it overly sentimental that he's (almost literally) saved by the power of love when his feelings for his wife overpower his ongoing devolution? Yeah. Perhaps. Kind of. Sure. But that's the point. In a genre filled with scientists getting iced by things they can't comprehend, it's comforting (and even surprising) to see a film that finds value in human connection, that emphasizes that mankind's greatest creation, it's biggest leap in evolution, was the creation of bonds between individuals.
And if you still find that cheesy, it's a conclusion reached while William Hurt writhes about in an insane prosthesis costume while psychedelic lights flash and the film intercuts with microscopic photography of various chemical reactions. And there's plenty of male and female nudity. Yep, 'Altered States' has something for everyone.
Next Week's Column: Because apparently everyone except me saw it (and was traumatized by it) as a child, next week's column will be the slightly infamous 'Return to Oz.' In the meantime, you can vote for the week after that by making a choice from the list below and letting me know in the comments section (or via Twitter).
'La Dolce Vita'
'High Plains Drifter'/'Pale Rider'/'The Outlaw Josey Wales' (Triple Feature)
'On the Waterfront'
'Sex, Lies and Videotape'
'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'
'The 39 Steps'
'The Sound of Music'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'