Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Ken Russell|
|Produced by||Howard Gottfried
|Written by||Sidney Aaron|
|Music by||John Corigliano|
|Cinematography||Jordan S. Cronenweth|
|Edited by||Eric Jenkins|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Running time||103 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 in his only novel he ever wrote and 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 film debut, Blair Brown, Charles Haid, Bob Balaban and Drew Barrymore in her film debut. Chayevsky had his name removed as credited screenwriter, using the pseudonym Sidney Aaron, his actual first and middle name.
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 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, aided by two like-minded researchers, Parrish and Rosenberg. At a faculty party he meets fellow "wonder kid" Emily and the two eventually marry.
When Edward hears of a Mexican tribe that experiences shared illusion states, he travels to Mexico to participate in what is apparently an Ayahuasca Ceremony. During the walk into the bush 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 is seen with Banisteriopsis caapi root in his hand prior to cutting Jessup's hand, adding blood to the mixture he is preparing. Immediately after consumption Edward experiences bizarre, intense imagery. He 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. The rest of the team becomes highly concerned about the experiments, but Edward is adamant about continuing. 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.
Edward begins to experience episodes of involuntary spontaneous temporary partial devolution, 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
The film's original director was Arthur Penn, who resigned after a dispute with Chayefsky according to Mad As Hell, a 2014 book by Dave Itzkoff. Special effects expert John Dykstra also resigned. The film was produced originally at Columbia Pictures, which would later end its participation with it, before Warner Bros. bought the rights. 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."
Itzkoff's book chronicles the making of Altered States and claims that Russell, objecting to Chayevsky's interference, had the writer banned from the set. Chayevsky reportedly tried to have Russell removed as director, but by then the film was already well under way, and the studio already had replaced one director (Penn). Chayevsky elected to remove his name from the credits, even though he was paid $1 million for it and it was his first screenplay after winning an Academy Award for Network.
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating of 86% "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 was 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
- 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.
- "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
- Altered States at the Internet Movie Database
- Altered States at Box Office Mojo
- Altered States at Rotten Tomatoes