Directed by Ken Russell, 1980
Altered States is one of the most unique ‘obsessed scientist’ horror films ever made. In fact, in that fun little subgenre it is second only to David Cronenberg’s flat-out masterpiece The Fly (which, for the record, I consider to be one of the top two horror films of all time). In a rare instance of actually competent marketing, the film’s tagline sums it up perfectly:
In the basement of a university medical school Dr. Jessup floats naked in total darkness. The most terrifying experiment in the history of science is out of control… and the subject is himself .
William Hurt gives one helluva performance as Dr. Jesup, a brilliant scientist obsessed with taking hallucinatory drugs in combination with suspending himself in a creepy isolation chamber, all with the intention of discovering what it means to truly be human. As his trips become more and more intense he begins to tap into the primordial instincts of the very first humanoids. As the film goes on, each trip becomes more horrorific than the one prior, to the point at which Jesup’s body begins to regress back down the evolutionary ladder…
I haven’t seen anything else Russell has done, but going solely from his talent on display here, he is a fantastic director. The only person who could have possibly delivered these goods with any improvement over Russell would be Cronenberg, and even then I’m not all that confident his vision would be any different from Russell’s. He does a tremendeous job juggling all of the film’s many elements and never lets it stray into absurdity even despite the film’s ‘new-gen’ philosphies and trippy visuals. And man is he great with actors. William Hurt is great in everything he does, but this was actually his first feature length film and he carries it wonderfully. He’s very relateable and grounded, even as he falls deeper into his own pit of insanity.
Paddy Chayefsky‘s script, which is an adaptation of his own novel, is complex, but never dumbed down for a mass audience. It perfectly balances the science it believes in, which is daunting at times, with the humanity of Jessup and his quest for “the final truth”. It’s a truly wild script that stands tall in the brotherhood of the scientifically adventerous, namely operating in the well versed realm of Lovecraft, and Lovecraft is never a bad thing.
It may not be a terribly scary film, but it is horror nonetheless. It’s a film with a full stomach; complete in its arch and wholly self-contained. If you like smart films that are confident in their own right you’ll dig Altered States as much as I do. However, if you’re looking for rapid fire thrills, this is not the movie for you. That isn’t to say it is without scares. There are some images here that could give any nightmare a run for its money (crucifixed Jesus with an eight eye’d lamb’s head, anyone?)
It is a calm, slow burn of haunting imagery and a very satisfying examination of what it means to be truly human and the pain involved with trying to figure ‘it’ all out. Pick it up, it’s only a couple bucks and I guarantee you’ll be loaning it out to anyone who claims to love heady films.