“We’ve got millions of years stored up in that computer bank we call our mind. We’ve got trillions of dormant genes in us; our whole evolutionary past. Perhaps I’ve tapped into that."
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Truth told, as a character, Dr. Edward Jessup would fit right into the well-meaning but ultimately misguided mad scientist mold of the 1930s through the 1950s, whose cinematic pursuits into the unknown and target fixation found them tampering in Domains beyond their understanding, consequences and social obligations be damned as long as they see these damnable experiments through to the bitter end and find the answer to the question they seek. Here, Jessup (Hurt), an abnormal psych professor working with schizophrenics, latches onto a theory that our “other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states.” And to explore this further, Jessup, with the help of his assistant, Arthur Rosenberg (Balaban), starts experimenting with a sensory deprivation tank, hoping this isolation and resulting hallucinations will help him tap into the other side and make it manifest.
At this point it isn’t really clear what exactly Jessup’s endgame is but he soon becomes obsessed with the spiritual and religious overtones of the visions he has while free-floating in a salt solution in the dark. (Apparently, as a child, Jessup was prone to these type of hallucinatory spells, which intensified after the death of his father before eventually fading, and he’s been trying to tune back into these ever since.) Eventually, he at least tries to put into words what he is trying to achieve to a young and attentive anthropology student named Emily (Brown), an intellectual equal, who soon becomes smitten with the eccentric Jessup. And as a seemingly one-sided romantic spark ignites, topped off by some wild sexual encounters, this eventually finds the absent-minded professor, against his better judgment (-- he even warns Emily that he finds the concept of love frivolous in a 'this does not compute' sense and will never be able to connect with her in that way), abandoning his mission for a spell, committing to a marriage with Emily because there just seems to be an unquantifiable “somethin’ somethin’” about this woman.
Alas, this anchor isn’t enough to keep Jessup focused forever and his obsessions soon start to preoccupy him again; and despite raising two toddlers (-- the eldest around seven), a divorce appears to be imminent after a trial separation, where Emily will take the children with her to Africa for an extended study of primates while Jessup takes a trip to Mexico to witness an ancient ritual, where a certain indigenous tribe that dates back to the Toltecs partake of some potent magic mushrooms, which they call the First Flower, and experience a mass hallucination, where they all essentially experience the exact same visions.
Once there, it doesn’t take much to convince the tribal elder to allow Jessup to actively participate in the ceremony, which includes adding his own blood to the potent peyote confection before consuming it. This, the elder claims, will allow the participant to get into touch with the Original Being.
What happens next is an elaborate, intense, and regressive assault of images as Jessup tunes into something else entirely. These images include all kinds of religious iconography, including nods to Adam (Jessup) and Eve (Emily) as they are returned to clay and slowly disintegrate into dust. But then things devolve even further, and the images grow more unstable, strange and violent. And when Jessup finally comes out from under the influence, he wakes up next to the rendered remains of a large lizard he apparently disemboweled and tried to consume with his bare hands and teeth.
Freaked out, but determined to try and replicate this experience in a controlled environment, Jessup fine tunes his theory a bit, feeling with the right stimulants and surroundings, the body and mind, a collection of molecules and atoms that date back to the Big Bang and the birth of the universe, can regress and reconstitute back to this primordial state. And to prove this, he manages to secure a bottle of this magic elixir to take back to the States, where his deprivation tank and untold truths await to be tapped into an uncovered. And just like with all those other mad scientists of yore, this quest is destined to go awry with drastic consequences for Jessup and those closest to him...
Based on a novel written by Paddy Chayefsky, the production history of Altered States (1980) was nearly as sordid and feral as it’s main character’s violent hallucinations. Along with Rod Serling, Chayefsky was one of the most renown playwrights and screenwriters from the Golden Age of Television and was integral player in bringing “kitchen sink realism” to the small screen in the 1950s. This success also translated to the big screen when several of Chayefsky’s plays and teleplays were adapted into motion pictures, most notably Marty (1955), and he would go on to win two original screenplay Academy Awards for The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976).
Inspired by the work of John C. Lilly, a pioneer neuroscientist and researcher on the nature of consciousness while using a combination of psychotropic drugs and isolation tanks (-- a contraption of Lilly’s own invention), Chayefsky wrote his one and only novel, Altered States, which concerned one man's search for his primal self through these same means. The title refers to an altered state of consciousness, which is also referred to as an altered state of mind, which is any state that is significantly medically different to a normal waking state. This term was popularized around 1969 when Charles Tart used the expression to describe induced changes in a person's mental state.
Later, Lilly would claim a good chunk of Chayefsky's book was “borrowed” wholesale from his own novel, Dyadic Cyclone (1976), and a as of yet unpublished manuscript (-- later published as The Scientist in 1978), which described one of his ‘under the influence’ test-subjects regressing into an ape-like being, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. The subject in question would later testify that he “became a pre-hominid” and was in a tree, where a leopard was trying to get him, and so, he was trying to scare it away. Now, apparently, both Lilly and Chayefsky shared the same publisher (Bantam), and Chayefsky, through the publisher, asked permission to read Lilly's draft. Lilly agreed but only if the other author called and asked him personally. The call never came, but the evidence in both the book and the adapted film has convinced Lilly that Chayefsky most probably read his manuscript.
I’m not sure if Lilly was “the researcher” who sued Chayefsky over the book but someone sure did, and the stress of this on the author triggered a heart attack in 1977. But despite these health issues and legal hassles, the book was finally published in 1978 and was soon optioned by Columbia Pictures for a big screen adaptation. Chayefsky would adapt the screenplay himself, Daniel Melnick would produce, and it was originally slated to be directed by Arthur Penn (1967s' Bonnie and Clyde and 1970s' Little Big Man), who had worked with Chayefsky in New York during the live television era, with elaborate special effects provided by John Dykstra -- fresh off of Star Wars (1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1978), and special make-up appliances by none other than the legendary Dick Smith (-- with an uncredited assist from Rick Baker).
But as the proposed budget to pull the F/X off bloomed to over $15 million, coupled with a cantankerous falling out between Penn and Chayefsky, which ended with Penn quitting the production, Columbia got cold feet and pulled the plug. But Altered States didn’t stay in turnaround for very long, with Warner Bros. stepping up when Melnick and Chayefsky announced they had found a replacement for Penn: Ken Russell.
“I know my films upset people,” said notorious British film auteur Ken Russell. “I want to upset people." After serving a hitch in the Merchant Navy and the Royal Air Force, Russell’s initial career choice was to be a classical ballet dancer. When that didn’t pan out, he fell back on his childhood love of film and took his resume of short films to Huw Weldon at the BBC, who immediately hired him to replace John Schlessinger. Russell would work for the BBC for nearly 10 years, churning out 34 films. But even on the small screen, the director’s flamboyant propensity for brutality, the profane and the perverse, and taboo-breaking, sexually charged visuals found him in constant trouble with censors, viewers and the brass. And by Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), the public outcry was so great, even reaching the floor of Parliament, Russell would never work for the BBC again. “I’d rather gamble than play it safe,” said Russell in his own defense. “If I err it's by overstating, but I try to get it right."
But just as his TV career was drying up, Russell was starting to gain some traction on the big screen. His third feature and breakout hit was Women in Love (1969), based on D.H. Lawrence's novel about love, sex and the upper class in post World War I England, which would go on to be an international hit and garnered several Academy Award nominations. Russell followed that up with The Devils (1971), a tale of a witch-hunt and sexual repression at a Catholic convent in France, where several blasphemous nuns are up to no good. Never one to shy away at taking potshots at the church, Russell’s film received an X-rating but still managed to do good business in England but floundered everywhere else, which were relegated to severely edited cuts of the film. This also led to an infamous dust-up where Russell was interviewed with newspaper film critic Alexander Walker, who did not like the film; and their confrontation on live TV got so heated, it ended with Russell hitting Walker over the head with a rolled up copy of his own review.
Despite this gung-ho defense, after it was completed and released, Russell swore he would never make anything as disturbing as The Devils again. And so, true to his word, he spent the rest of the 1970s switching between some brazen and bizarre bio-pics on famed artists and composers like The Music Lovers (1970) and Lisztomania (1975) or outlandish musical adaptations with The Boyfriend (1971) and Tommy (1975). Soon dubbed England’s Orson Welles or the Fellini of the North, Russell soon had himself a reputation of visually stimulating films that didn’t translate very well at the box-office. Still, his elaborate visual style of expressing the nigh inexpressible seemed to make him tailor made to direct Altered States, which is dominated by the phantasmagorical hallucination sequences when Jessup is under the influence, which becomes more intense and terrifying after he returns from Mexico.
Rounding up the enthusiastic Rosenberg and the skeptical Mason Parrish (Haid), a friend and a doctor needed to monitor his vitals, Jessup doses himself and hops into the tank, where something amazing happens. For while he has visions of early hominids trying to eke out a living, and those monitoring the tank hear guttural gibberish coming from within, when he wakes up, bleeding profusely from the mouth, he demands Parrish x-ray him before the effect of the last trip wears off. He complies, and when they reveal parts of his body have transmogrified, taking on some of the characteristics of a simian, Jessup’s theory evolves even further -- now believing the combination of the drug and the tank will gain him access to the millions of years of evolution stored up in his own genome. A pathway, if you will, that he intends to follow all the way back to the very beginning of life itself.
Both Rosenberg and Parrish think he’s crazy -- especially Parrish, who thinks Jessup is suffering from toxic-exposure to the untested drug. (In truth, Jessup is actually starting to transform without the drugs and the tank.) Undaunted, to prove his theory to be correct and see it through, Jessup takes an unsupervised dose and dip, only this time, the devolution transformation is completed and an ape-man emerges from the tank, which attacks the lab's custodial staff and severely injures one of the guards before escaping into the night. The creature eventually finds itself in a zoo, where it kills and partially devours a sheep. But when the drug finally wears off, it is a naked Jessup that is found in the cage next to the rendered meal.
With the reports of a gorilla loose in the lab from several sources, coupled with the bizarre circumstances at the zoo, Rosenberg, Parrish and a returning Emily, faced with empirical evidence and a few cracked skulls that Jessup just might be onto something, agree to help him repeat this transformation under observation. Here it is revealed Emily’s feelings for Jessup have not eroded one iota but she isn’t sure she can stick around to watch the man destroy himself, and warns that perhaps some questions weren’t meant to be answered. But the stubborn Jessup presses on, only this time he doesn’t turn into a neanderthal. No, he transforms into something else entirely.
Something so potent and unstable, the energy discharge from the blob of primordial protoplasm winds up destroying both the tank and the lab! Transformed into something akin to a cross between Belial from Basket Case (1982) and the Big Boss monster from Slither (2006), Jessup screams from the center of a mini-hurricane, where he appears to also be dissipating. Dire circumstances that Emily fights through to reach him, where her mere touch is enough of an anchor to zap Jessup back to normal.
Once the other two regain consciousness, they take the Jessups home to recover, where, after a brief debate on whether to continue to study this quantifiable phenomenon or just leave well enough alone, the couple are left by themselves. Here, Jessup admits he reached the “ultimate moment of terror that is the beginning of life." And, "It is nothing,” he says. “Simple, hideous nothing.” Thus, the final truth of all things is there is no Final Truth. It’s all transitory. And she saved him from that infernal pit. However, things then take an ominous turn when Jessup admits this “ultimate moment of terror” is still inside him, fighting to get out and he fears she may not be enough to keep it from devouring him.
And almost on queue, Jessup starts to violently transform again, and this time, when Emily reaches out to him, she is equally and painfully transformed into a being of pure pain. But seeing his wife suffering triggers something inside Jessup and he fights off the transformation as the two try to reach each other. Reverting to his human form, Jessup embraces energized Emily and the energy discharges, returning her to normal, too. The couple embrace as true love conquers all.
Apparently, at the wrap party, both cast and crew were presented with t-shirts that proclaimed “I survived Altered States.” No small task as the tumultuous production was still in a state of constant upheaval even after switching out directors. Seems Russell couldn’t get along with Dykstra, and so he was soon out the door, too, replaced admirably by Bran Ferren, who overcompensated for a slashed budget with some truly remarkable F/X, including some early use of CGI during the climax to render the energy discharges between proto-Jessup and electro-Emily. Smith and Baker’s creature designs also fare well, and together, perfectly blended into Russell’s vision.
Things weren’t near so smooth between Russell and Chayefsky, however. The main bone of contention was with how Russell was treating his precious dialogue. “I don't think Paddy had ever been involved with a director who wasn't malleable,” said Russell. “He would make suggestions and I would listen courteously, and then disagree.” Russell wasn’t a fan of the script, calling it “ponderous, pretentious and labored”. But fearing legal action if he strayed from it, the film wound up being an extremely faithful adaptation of the source novel -- almost verbatim. But as film critic Richard Corliss noted, the characters are "endlessly reflective and articulate, spitting out litanies of adjectives, geysers of abstract nouns, chemical chains of relative clauses" which Russell had his cast deliver at a breakneck pace, overlapping the dialogue, usually with their mouths full of food.
And that is what the author objected to; that Russell wasn’t showing the proper respect for his work or taking his dialogue seriously enough. Things eventually got so heated Russell had Chayefsky banned from the set. Chayefsky, in turn, tried to get Russell fired off the picture. But with one director already removed, and Russell being the 27th of 27 on the list of interviewed replacements (-- at least according to him), Warners backed the director, and so, Chayefsky would essentially disavow the film, removing his name from the credits and using a pseudonym, Sidney Aaron, instead. It would be his last project as he would be dead within the year.
Thus the film is ultimately Russell’s, who apparently took a ride on some magic mushrooms during the making of the film but had a bummer of a trip, and he brings the bizarre in buckets; but what really keeps the film from breaking under the ponderous weight of Chayefsky pretensions and Russell’s perversity is the cast, who bring such an earnest sincerity to the gobbledy-gook they are spewing one doesn’t seem to notice or care that the majority of it flies right over your head. Now, the vast majority of the players were already put in place by Arthur Penn, including William Hurt, making his big screen debut. And as good as he is as this ersatz Dr Jekyll and Mr. Faust, and as good as Balaban and Haid are as his neurotic foils, the rock on which the film is built is Blair Brown.
After kicking around on television for nearly a decade, Altered States was Brown’s potential breakout role. She is smart, sensual and possesses an intellect that allows her to hold her own with the big boys. She owns it. And while I for one second do not buy the “true love of a good woman leads to salvation” hogwash this film was ultimately trying to peddle, with Brown, with that performance and portrayal of character, I >almost< buy it. (And if not buy, at least easily let it slide.) She had a solid career after Altered States, but it never reached the heights she truly deserved.
Ultimately, the troubled production wound up being a box-office failure. It didn’t bomb, necessarily, but it did disappoint, making around $21 million on a $15 million budget. Couple that with his behavior onset and his constant bickering with the producer and screenwriter meant Russell would never work for a major studio in Hollywood again. He did, however, find an outlet with Vestron, a home video distributor looking to get into theatrical production, who inked him to a four picture deal that netted us Gothic (1986) and the delightfuly demented Lair of the White Worm (1988).
As I noted earlier I’m not sure if I buy the ultimate conclusion of what Russell was selling by way of Chayefsky in Altered States (-- and they kinda gave this game away early, visually turning Emily into the riddle of the Sphinx in the Adam and Eve segment), but I will not deny that this movie is “a fiendishly constructed visual and verbal roller coaster, a movie deliberately intended to overwhelm its audiences with sensual excess" (-- Roger Ebert). Oh, yeah. There is a ton of noise and visual thunder to sift through and absorb, here; and it once more makes me depressed that they don't seem to make this kind of adult-oriented, hard-hitting, draw your own conclusions, R-rated sci-fi films anymore. And here's where things really get complicated. See, while I am glad to have survived the experience of this film intact, I’m not sure if I ever want to watch this again. On a technical level, it is kinda brilliant. And extremely well acted. On a philosophical level, well, I don’t want to think about it too hard for I fear the film will completely fall apart on me; and frankly, I don’t wanna ruin that initial, favorable impression of “What in the hell did I just watch?!”. Thus and so, did I like Altered States? Yeah. I did. Do I ‘get’ Altered States? I honestly have no idea. But right now, I’m okay with that.
This post is part of The Celluloid Zeroes Russell Mania roundtable. Check back in later for more links as the reviews go live: Web of the Big Damned Spider: The Boyfriend :: Cinemasochist Apocalypse: Gothic :: The Terrible Claw Reviews: Lair of the White Worm :: Checkpoint Telstar: The Devils
Altered States (1980) Warner Bros. / EP: Daniel Melnick / P: Howard Gottfried / AP: Stuart Baird / D: Ken Russell / W: Paddy Chayefsky / C: Jordan Cronenweth / E: Eric Jenkins, Jack Harnish / M: John Corigliano / S: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Dori Brenner