Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Ken Russell|
|Produced by||Howard Gottfried
|Written by||Sidney Aaron|
|Music by||John Corigliano|
|Cinematography||Jordan S. Cronenweth|
|Editing by||Eric Jenkins|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Running time||102 minutes|
Altered States is a 1980 American science fiction-horror film adaptation of a novel by the same name by playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. It was the only novel that Chayefsky ever wrote, as well as his final film. Both the novel and the film are based on John C. Lilly's sensory deprivation research conducted in isolation tanks under the influence of psychoactive drugs like ketamine and LSD.
The film was directed by Ken Russell and featured William Hurt in his screen debut. It also featured Blair Brown (as Emily Jessup), Charles Haid and Bob Balaban. It additionally featured the film debut of Drew Barrymore. The film score was composed by classical composer John Corigliano (with Christopher Keene conducting) and was nominated for an Academy Award. The film also received an Oscar nomination for Sound, losing to The Empire Strikes Back.
Edward Jessup (William Hurt) is a university professor of abnormal psychology who, while studying schizophrenia, begins to think that "our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states." Jessup begins experimenting with sensory-deprivation using a flotation tank, and he travels to Mexico to participate in what is apparently an Ayahuasca Ceremony, although his guide states that the Indigenous tribe they are meeting works with Amanita muscaria which they are collecting for next year's ceremonies. An indigenous elder was seen with Banisteriopsis caapi root in his hand prior to cutting Jessup's hand, adding the ingredient of blood. Immediately after consumption he experiences bizarre, intense imagery. The professor then returns to the U.S. with a tincture and begins taking it orally before each session in the flotation tank where he experiences a series of increasingly drastic psychological and physical transformations.
Edward's mind experiments cause him to experience actual, physical biological devolution. At one stage he emerges from the isolation tank as a feral and curiously small-statured, light-skinned Primitive Man. In a subsequent experiment he is regressed into a mostly amorphous mass of conscious, primordial matter. It is only the physical intervention of his wife Emily which brings him back from this latter, shocking transformation in which he seems poised on the brink of becoming a non-physical form of proto-consciousness and possibly disappearing from our version of reality altogether.
The experiments worsen, as Professor Jessup experiences episodes of involuntary spontaneous temporary partial devolution. This occurs outside of the isolation tank and without the intake of additional doses of the hallucinogenic tincture. His early reaction is more one of fascination than concern, but as his priorities gradually change due to Emily's determination to keep from losing him, he finally begins to act like someone who values his humanity.
- William Hurt as Dr. Edward "Eddie" Jessup
- Blair Brown as Emily Jessup
- Bob Balaban as Arthur Rosenberg
- Charles Haid as Mason Parrish
- Thaao Penghlis as Eduardo Echeverria
- Drew Barrymore as Margaret Jessup
- Megan Jeffers as Grace Jessup
- Miguel Godreau as Primal Man
- Dori Brenner as Sylvia Rosenberg
- Peter Brandon as Alan Hobart
- Charles White-Eagle as The Brujo
- John Larroquette as X-Ray Technician
- Jack Murdock as Hector Orteco
- Francis X. McCarthy as Obispo (credited as Frank McCarthy)
The film's original director was Arthur Penn, who resigned after a dispute with Chayefsky. Special effects expert John Dykstra also resigned. The film was produced originally at Columbia Pictures, who would later end their participation with the film, before Warner Bros. bought the film. Chayefsky later withdrew his name from the project; film critic Janet Maslin, in her review of the film, thought it "easy to guess why":
- It's easy to guess why he and Mr. Russell didn't see eye to eye. The direction, without being mocking or campy, treats outlandish material so matter-of-factly that it often has a facetious ring. The screenplay, on the other hand, cries out to be taken seriously, as it addresses, with no particular sagacity, the death of God and the origins of man.
Russell maintained that he changed almost nothing in Chayefsky's script, and called the writer "impossible to please."
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating of 88% "Fresh" and a consensus that states "Extraordinarily daring for a Hollywood film, Altered States attacks the viewer with its inventive, aggressive mix of muddled sound effects and visual pyrotechnics." Janet Maslin of The New York Times termed the film a "methodically paced fireworks display, exploding into delirious special-effects sequences at regular intervals, and maintaining an eerie calm the rest of the time. If it is not wholly visionary at every juncture, it is at least dependably — even exhilaratingly — bizarre. Its strangeness, which borders cheerfully on the ridiculous, is its most enjoyable feature." She also called it "in fine shape as long as it revels in its own craziness, making no claims on the viewer's reason. But when it asks you to believe that what you're watching may really be happening, and to wonder what it means, it is asking far too much. By the time it begins straining for an ending both happy and hysterical, it has lost all of its mystery, and most of its magic."
- This one has everything: sex, violence, comedy, thrills, tenderness. It's an anthology and apotheosis of American pop movies: Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Nutty Professor, 2001, Alien, Love Story. It opens at fever pitch and then starts soaring—into genetic fantasy, into a precognitive dream of delirium and delight. Madness is its subject and substance, style and spirit. The film changes tone, even form, with its hero's every new mood and mutation. It expands and contracts with his mind until both almost crack. It keeps threatening to go bonkers, then makes good on its threat, and still remains as lucid as an aerialist on a high wire. It moves with the loping energy of a crafty psychopath, or of film makers gripped with the potential of blowing the moviegoer's mind out through his eyes and ears. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Altered States.
Corliss calls the film a "dazzling piece of science fiction"; he recognizes the film's dialogue as clearly Chayefsky's, with characters that are "endlessly reflective and articulate, spitting out litanies of adjectives, geysers of abstract nouns, chemical chains of relative clauses", dialogue that's a "welcome antidote to all those recent...movies in which brutal characters speak only words of one syllable and four letters." But the film is ultimately Russell's, who inherited a "cast of unknowns" chosen by its original director and "gets an erotic, neurotic charge from the talking-heads scenes that recall Penn at his best."
Pauline Kael, on the other hand, wrote that the "grotesquely inspired" combination of "Russell, with his show-biz-Catholic glitz mysticism, and Chayefsky, with his show-biz-Jewish ponderousness" results in an "aggressively silly picture" that "isn't really enjoyable."
- The scene in which the scientist becomes cosmic energy and his wife grabs him and brings him back to human form is straight out of my Dyadic Cyclone (1976)...As for the scientist's regression into an ape-like being, the late Dr. Craig Enright, who started me on K (ketamine) while taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, suddenly "became" a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, "Where the hell were you?" He said, "I became a pre-hominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away." The manuscript of The Scientist (1978) was in the hands of Bantam, the publishers. The head of Bantam called and said, "Paddy Chayefsky would like to read your manuscript. Will you give him your permission? I said, "Only if he calls me and asks permission." He didn't call. But he probably read the manuscript.
Awards and nominations
The film has been nominated for two Academy Awards:
- Academy Award for Best Sound - Arthur Piantadosi, Les Fresholtz, Michael Minkler and Willie D. Burton
- Academy Award for Best Original Score - John Corigliano
American Film Institute Lists
In popular culture
- James Cameron featured the film's "sliding" opening title effect in his film, The Terminator, released four years later.
- Ambient/experimental musical band, House of Low Culture, named its second full-length album, Edward's Lament, after the film's main character and also used some of the film's themes for songwriting inspiration.
- The film's final scene, in which Jessup slams himself against a wall as he alternates between human and devolved form, has been referenced in an A-ha promotional video for "Take On Me" and the South Park episode "Tsst".
- British Metalcore band, Bring Me The Horizon, has sampled the film on the track, "Anthem", from its album, There Is a Hell, Believe Me I've Seen It. There Is a Heaven, Let's Keep It a Secret.
- British industrial metal music group, Godflesh, has used stills from the film as the cover art for a number of its single and album releases.
- Brazilian thrash metal band, Sepultura, recorded a song entitled "Altered State" on its album, Arise.
- Grindcore band, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, used numerous samples from the movie on its album, Altered States of America.
- A sample from the film "I feel like my heart is being touched by Christ" is featured in the song, "Psalm 69", by industrial band, Ministry.
- The film was parodied by the television program, Fridays, in its February 27, 1981, episode, "Altered Statesman"; in the episode, Ronald. R. Reagan (John Roarke) experiences hallucinations of previous presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy.
- The film was parodied by Saturday Night Live's March 7, 1981 episode, "Altered Walter", with guest host, Bill Murray, playing Walter Cronkite.
- Dialogue from the film is sampled by musician, DJ Shadow, in "What Does Your Soul Look Like, Part 3", from the Preemptive Strike album.
- The film was referenced in the episode, "House's Head", of the medical drama, House, when the main character enters a sensory deprivation tank to remember events prior to a concussion caused by a bus crash.
- Sloan's song, "Sensory Deprivation", references the film by name.
- Jessup's monologue about his relationship with Emily can be heard on the track, "Exhausted Love", by hip hop musical duo, Eyedea & Abilities.
- In season 3, episode 3 ("Further Instructions") of the television show, Lost, Charlie agrees to help guard Locke and states, "make sure you don't devolve into a monkey", while John undergoes an hallucinatory experience.
- Steve Orchard's video edit for the 1980s British Indie band, The Chameleons, on its track, "In Shreds", references the film's drug sequences.
- The movie, Beerfest, by Barry Badnarath, parodies the film.
- The video for the song, "Hello", by The Beloved, features the film's "sliding" opening title effects and also contains sensory deprivation tank sequences.
- The DVD cover for the Broken Lizard film, Super Troopers, parodies Altered States by using the tagline, "Altered State Police".
- Dialogue from the film is sampled in the track, "Project80", on Cabaret Voltaire's 1994 album, The Conversation.
- The film is referenced in Psych (season 3, episode 13), when Shawn emerges from a hot tub.
- Many elements of the Fringe television series reference elements contained in Altered States. For example, one of the main characters of the series is a scientist who experiments with hallucinogens and isolation tanks to overcome physical boundaries that limit travel or awareness; such experiments include travel to parallel universes or the ability to see into them. Also, the series features a minor character with the last name Jessup who appeared in two episodes during the second season. One of the stars of Fringe is Blair Brown, who starred in Altered States.
- The British Rock Band Supertramp's 1985 video for the song "Cannonball", features caveman-like central character that closely resembles the primitive man character of Williams Hurt's alter ego, trying to cope with and out of body, out of time experience in a modern day transportation system in search of his mate.
- Review of Altered States from Variety
- Invasion of the Mind Snatcher, a December 1980 review by Richard Corliss in Time
- Review of Altered States, a December 25, 1980 article in The New York Times
- "A Second Look: Ken Russell's 'Altered States' remains visceral". Los Angeles Times. July 14, 2012.
- Kael, Pauline (1984). Taking It All In. New York: Holt, Rinhart and Winstone. pp. 127–132. ISBN 0-03-069361-6 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- "The 53rd Academy Awards (1981) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-10-07.
- AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees
- AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot
- Peter Dekkers (14). "Altered States - title sequence" (Video upload). YouTube. Google, Inc. Retrieved 30 November 2012.
- Ministry (29). "Samples listing". Ministry. prongs.org/ministry. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
- "Home". JuDD3rman (Steve Orchard). Google, Inc. 2012. Retrieved 30 November 2012.
- TheeJudderman (12). "In Shreds - The Chameleons - Altered States Video Edit" (Video upload). YouTube. Google, Inc. Retrieved 30 November 2012.