Film Review: Altered States (1980)

Release Date: December 25th, 1980
Directed by: Ken Russell
Written by: Paddy Chayefsky (as Sidney Aaron)
Based on: Altered States by Paddy Chayefsky
Music by: John Corigliano
Cast: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Drew Barrymore, John Larroquette, George Gaynes

Warner Bros., 103 Minutes


“Fight it, Eddie. You made it real, you can make it unreal.” – Emily Jessup

I was pretty excited to see Altered States pop up on FilmStruck, a mighty fine streaming service. It’s a film I have wanted to see for a very long time but it wasn’t very accessible.

The film deals with an abnormal psychologist who gets a bit too addicted to his work and pays a hefty price for it. His work involves seeing what will happen if he mixes hallucinogenic drugs and an isolation chamber. What we get to experience is a man tripping his balls off, seeing some strange and really messed up shit. However, each trip gets more and more intense and the man starts to have physical changes. He starts regressing and at one point becomes a savage neanderthal. He even goes so far as to regress into primordial matter.

Calling this film unique and bizarre is a serious understatement. It is those things but it embraces the weird so genuinely and effectively that even if this tale is quite fantastical, you are sucked right into it.

I think the real reason why this picture works so well is the skill of its director, Ken Russell. By this point, he had already directed three Oscar winning films: Women In LoveThe Devils and The Who’s Tommy. This film would also go on to win Oscars for Best Sound and Best Original Score. But it was Russell’s uncanny vision and his ability to manufacture such vivid and intense images throughout this film that prevented this from turning into some hokey, LSD-laced, run of the mill sci-fi thriller.

William Hurt was exceptional as the psychologist, Eddie Jessup. Every single scene felt believable and he sold everything that was happening to him on screen. Not bad, as this was actually his debut film. He also had help from a young Bob Balaban, as well as Charles Haid, who became my favorite guy in the movie.

Eddie’s family was comprised of Blair Brown, who played his wife, and Drew Barrymore, as his daughter. This was also Barrymore’s debut film. We also get to see a very young John Larroquette play an x-ray technician and there’s a small role for George Gaynes, as well.

The special effects are good for its time and the hallucination sequences are amazingly orchestrated.

There are a slew of films that deal with scientists going mad over their own experiments. There are also a slew of films that are serious mind fucks. Altered States is one of the best, though. And after finally watching it, I can see where other films were inspired by it. It is a great “body horror” film and it will make you uncomfortable at times. In some regards, I think it’s comparable to earlier David Cronenberg films, as well as 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other body horror flicks from the era: VideodromeThe FlyScannersFrom BeyondEraserhead, The Thing, etc. Also, Jacob’s Ladder.

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