Paddy Chayefsky’s best-known screenplay, for the prescient Network (1976), concerns one venerable news anchor’s on-air outbursts and breakdown. But his final screenplay, adapting his own novel, is even more explicitly about Altered States. The put-to-the-test subject is an ardent researcher and psychologist Edward Jessup (William Hurt), in agitated pursuit of the otherworldly. His anthropologist wife Emily (Blair Brown) becomes certain he’s “on the verge of a breakdown,” but he feels closer to a breakthrough in his self-imposed isolation tank experiments with a hallucinogenic tincture he obtained from a Mexican tribe. A trippy, post-hippie take on the mad scientist story, this is a meeting of the academic and the counterculture, the talky and the flashy, the scientific and the religious. This 1980 film—call it intellectual body-horror—still has a flushed, fervid power.
With Altered States, Ken Russell, the sometimes-provocative English director, moved from his psycho-fantasia takes on composers, religion, and art (The Music Lovers, The Devils, Savage Messiah) into mainstream psychedelia (the studio was Warner Bros). In his film debut, Hurt is a livewire of impassioned cerebral energy. With his eyes wide, almost sparkling, and his scientific obsession soon leading to bodily possession. (Occasionally, the camera zooms in with a transfixed, horrible intent.) Jessup has Revelations-like visions in his early experiments: combusting Christ shrouds, multi-eyed sheep-heads, sex on a stone altar, eruptions of lava and fiery horizons. Emily even tells him (their Ivy League coupling’s so feverish that the story jumps from their engagement to, seven years later, their estrangement) that, when they have sex, “I feel like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God.”
While the talk can be a bit much and contains its fair share of medical jargon, it makes way for some bulging body-horror. Jessup’s early visions, worthy of a Romantic poet like William Blake, are succeeded by a freak-show metamorphosis out of Victorian-era Gothic and sci-fi (Jekyll and Hyde meets The Island of Doctor Moreau meets the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Creeping Man”). A sensationalist head-trip, swirling us up in one man’s desire to resurrect his “more primitive self,” Altered States remains luridly intense.
Sat., Jan. 20 (9:30 pm)
Directed by Ken Russell
Originally released: 1980