Altered States

08/15/2015 08:17

Film: Altered States

Year: 1980

Director: Ken Russell

Writer: Paddy Chayefsky

Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown and Bob Balaban



This film I actually came into pretty blind. It was listed in Fangoria’s Top 300 Horror Films issue and that was what brought me to check it out. This is actually my first foray into Ken Russell films as well, which I didn’t know what I was getting into there. The synopsis is a Harvard scientist conducts experiments on himself with a hallucinatory drug and an isolation chamber that may be causing him to regress genetically.

We start looking at something called an isolation chamber. It looks like an old boiler and there is a man inside of it named Eddie Jessup (William Hurt). We get a little voice-over about what is going on and what the chamber is supposed to do. In a nutshell, it is chamber that as the name says, isolates the person from all stimuli. There is water inside of it and they wear a helmet to ensure they can breathe. The voice-over tells us that it was used for a study, but the teacher is now using it on himself.

Monitoring him inside is Arthur Rosenberg (Bob Balaban). They are taking readings of his brainwaves and periodically asking him questions. When Eddie comes out, we learn that he got quite upset as he recounted the events of his father passing away.

Arthur throws a party at his place along with his wife Sylvia (Dori Brenner). He is speaking with another young woman, Emily (Blair Brown), when Eddie enters. The two of them hit it off with him going home with her. The two end up becoming a couple where he shares pretty early on his past where he used to see images of Jesus until his father died. It’s interesting though, his parents are two people of science.

Eddie goes back into the isolation chamber and we see one of the first vivid hallucinations. It is shown to us as a montage. There is his father in a hospital bed, religious icons and fire. Some of these images are of a multi-eyed goat that I’m assuming represents the evil side of religion.

Emily shows up at Eddie’s work to tell him that she is going to be teaching at Harvard like he is. She asks him to marry her and with come coercion, he agrees. We jump ahead where they now living in Boston with two children, Margaret (Drew Barrymore) and Grace (Megan Jeffers). Arthur and Sylvia come to visit where they learn that Emily and Eddie are getting a divorce. She is going to live in an Africa for a year while Eddie is going to Mexico to investigate a Native American tribe that uses hallucinatory mushrooms.

While in Mexico, the tribe of Native Americans allows him to drink the broth they create from the mushrooms. His trip that is even more vivid than the ones in the isolation chamber. This time he witnesses the Native Americans doing a tribal dance, sparks, lava, scenes of hell and there is a scene of him and Emily sitting at a white table enjoying food. There is also a snake that attacks Hurt. When he wakes up, there is a dead lizard and they are saying that he did it. He doesn’t think he did, thinking the Native Americans are playing a joke on him.

Hurt takes some of the broth back with him. He wants to use it while in an isolation chamber to see what the effects and what he can see. He meets up with Arthur and another colleague Mason Parrish (Charles Haid). Mason doesn’t want them messing with the isolation chamber, but he steps aside as they go about their experiment. Mason’s big issue also is they don’t know what is in the broth and doesn’t think Hurt should be putting it into his body like he is.

Despite the warnings, he uses it inside the chamber anyways and the manifestations are much more real than they ever could imagine. Emily is back from Africa and she might be the only person to prevent him from doing something that’s harmful to the point of no return.

I have to say that this film is pretty solid. The film deals with altered states of conscious of the mind. I really like the hallucination scenes. They break the film rule about not having more than two montages and I think that’s a good move to portray what Eddie is going through. I thought they really get a deeper meaning across with the images they use. Some of the scenes are also quite creepy. It’s taken me three times, but I feel like they’re trying to convey that the journey he is on, the closer he gets the darker that it does. This does lead to an ending that I don’t really care for if I’m honest.

Since this film is really about the visuals, which Russell is great with, to convey a lot of it, I want to shift to the effects. I’ve seen another of his films The Devils, in between this second and third watch of this and Russell is just such a visionary director. The early montages are really just similar religious icons that Eddie claims to see early on. We do get an interesting one where a Jesus figure has the head of a multi-eyed goat, which I think is the Devil. Once he starts to use the broth from Mexico, they get darker and the changes to his body start to happen. I thought this is probably one of the strongest parts of the film.

The other aspect that is really good is the performances. Hurt is amazing in this film. I really feel like he is this very intelligent man who doesn’t understand social norms. He has a beautiful, brilliant woman who loves him, but he doesn’t see to care as much as he wants to find the truth. I do think that’s actually a drawback to the character of Brown. She does a great job here, but they make he more concerned with having a family than her career. I just know this is written by a male, so it does come off a bit sexist. Balaban and Haid are both great along with the rest of the cast. They round out the film for what was needed and it is funny to see a cameo from a young Barrymore.

Something that I did have an issue with was the pacing. I do feel that it runs a bit long. The runtime is 102 minutes, but I do believe there are some unnecessary aspects that could be cut out to trip this to 90 or so. What I’m referring to doesn’t even necessarily have to do with the montages, which I want to stay, but just some unneeded character interactions that don’t really progress us. I also don’t really like how this ends. With how far they’re taking the Eddie character, I feel like it is all diminished with what they do at the end in my opinion.

The last thing to cover would be the soundtrack. I also thought this was one of the stronger parts of this film. It really fit the scenes and at times, actually made them tenser if I’m going to be honest. This is a soundtrack I would actually seek out to listen to while I’m writing as well.

Now I personally dig this arthouse film, but it has some issues for me. As someone who isn’t religious, I like what they’re exploring here. I think that Eddie’s drive for the truth is wonderful, I just feel that they copped out to end it. Not the most horrific film, but that’s not to say there aren’t parts. The performances are really good, the effects are as well and the soundtrack fits for what they needed, as well as building on it. I do think that it runs a bit long as well. There are some things that by cutting them out would make this run a bit tighter in my opinion. Overall I’d say this is good movie, but definitely not for everyone.


My Rating: 8 out of 10