Altered States

(Ken Russell, USA, 1980)

BY JOSÉ TEODORO | April 15, 2024

Adapted by Network scenarist Paddy Chayefsky from his only novel, Altered States (1980) is an unusual work of mainstream psychedelic science fiction, one that posits the unfettered mind as an engine of radical corporeal transformation. It could almost be material for David Cronenberg, who would craft his masterpiece on the subject of transfiguration just a few years later with Videodrome. But after Arthur Penn quit—who himself got the job after a slew of other filmmakers passed—the project went to British director Ken Russell, whose penchant for fusing romantic high-mindedness with delirious trash was arguably exactly what was required by this boomer fantasy about a handsome ivy-league academic prying open the doors of perception and unleashing his inner primate.

Eddie Jessup is the sort of role William Hurt was born to embody—an eccentric genius whose dreamy blue eyes are prone to baroque religious visions and whose tenacious pursuit in the name of science folds easily into full-blown addiction. Enabled by fellow lab rats Arthur (an adorably bearded Bob Balaban) and Mason (Charles Haid), Eddie develops a predilection for extended sessions in the flotation tank, which he believes hold the key to accessing some otherwise inaccessible knowledge regarding “the true self.” Excessive exposure to sensory deprivation yields some wild side effects, however, and Eddie winds up doing nasty things while under the influence. The film’s central conceit, which involves Eddie regressing into a bloodthirsty, quasi-simian creature terrorizing security guards and zoo animals, is totally bananas—though it’s no sillier than many of the film’s visualizations of Eddie’s hallucinations, which are often redundant and literal-minded. Time has imbued these images with a patina of winsome kitsch, but they threaten to undermine what’s most compelling in the film: an earnest desire for transcendence and, eventually, a profound, loving connection. For all its dizzy ideas and old-fashioned-monster-movie monkey business, Altered States is also very much a story of remarriage for a generation still reeling from the sexual revolution, with Eddie’s odyssey transporting him back into the arms of his equally adventurous anthropologist spouse, Emily (Blair Brown). It helps that the affluent couple apparently never need concern themselves with childcare, with their offspring (baby Drew Barrymore among them) only ever making purely decorative appearances.

Altered States endures in no small part because of the pedigree of its personnel. Hurt and Brown are elegantly aligned in their focus on the characters’ ambition, awe, and sense of mutual care, while Haid is frequently hilarious, always blowing a gasket over something or other—if this were a Western, he would surely be jumping up and down on his hat. The cinematography of Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) thrives on its balance of the fantastical and the everyday, while the atonal spells within John Corigliano’s Oscar-nominated score serve as a subliminal reminder that this story unfolds in a version of reality where absolutely nothing is stable. 🩸


is a freelance critic and playwright.

X: @chiminomatic

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