The best drug-fueled cosmic horror movie in at least six billion years.
Directed by Ken Russell
Written by Paddy Chayefsky (based on his novel)
With William Hurt (Eddie Jessup), Blair Brown (Emily Jessup), Bob Balaban (Arthur Rosenberg), Charles Haid (Mason Parrish), and Charles White-Eagle (The Brujo)
Spoiler alert: severe
Content warning: William Hurt sidebutt, the crack God put in Blair Brown's ass, and breasts in a medium long-shot from a screencap of a video advertised as "HD" on Youtube—so recognizing that it's even a woman only means that you still get to legally drive
"And, obviously, I don't even want to mention Altered States in a sentence that refers to this excruciating knockoff."
In fact, despite sitting through all ninety minutes of Lucy and then writing about the thing for a couple hundred more, Ken Russell's Altered States never even crossed my mind: that sentence is an edit I made a half a day later, because it's so Goddamned obvious that failing to make the connection is kind of a minor embarrassment. But cut me this necessary slack—there's nothing of the substance of Altered States in that preposterous failure at all, and the realization that each film is exploring something like the same territory is so painful that my mind must have switched off in despair at the prospect of it. That's the only explanation, since Altered States—a copy of which sits within my sight even now, nestled twain Aladdin and
It's actually Amadeus, but that's not a joke about my apparently terrible taste.
No, from the brilliant opening credits on, the difference between something like this and something like Lucy is so great that it's easy not to make those connections, however obvious.
The era from which Altered States hails is the Axial Age of horror. The early 70s till the mid-80s were a magic time for murder and monsters, vastly more fertile than the Psycho wave of the 60s or the Laemmle family's efforts to change the face of the picture star into something more macabre in the 20s and 30s. The 1950s' explosion of cardboard science movies offers a parallel, but it takes some charity to really consider many of them "horrific" by modern standards. Whatever contamination in the water caused it, it happened across the industrialized world, and this decade and a half was one of the most gruesome flowerings in cinema history.
The real causes were probably the liberalization of content, the advent of new distribution systems, and technological advances in makeup and special effects, but that really does take the mystery out of it.
It's here that many of horror's subgenres were more-or-less fixed into their tropic forms—the modern slasher, for example, codified by Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978). For true slasher expertise, look no further than Popcorn Culture's Census Bloodbath, an ongoing and increasingly encyclopedic catalog of the 1980s' blood-soaked cinema. (But do not look here, for I am comparatively cloaked in ignorance. This refusal also has the benefit of letting me continue to conceal my true, secret feelings about Halloween.)
Instead, I've tended to focus on what scares me: this era was also the golden age of body horror, and of its close cousin, cosmic horror. Strongly aligned with science fiction, one offered nightmare visions of the human organism becoming something alien, the other, incomprehensible vistas where human cognition itself was subverted and shattered. In the seminal body and cosmic horror films, the inexplicably supernatural collided apocalyptically with physiology and psychology alike.
David Cronenberg of Canada was enthroned in his Exploding Heads Period, offering a number of transhumanist experiments, but three films in particular portended a potentially universal doom from powers beyond our ken, whether that power be the erotic parasites of Shivers ('75), the replacement species of Scanners ('81), or the sea of electromagnetic signal itself in Videodrome ('83). Ridley Scott of the United Kingdom took American money and made a little movie you might have heard of called Alien ('79). Eight years later, Clive Barker, likewise of Albion, demanded that we witness his vision of even more blatant extraterrestrial sex monsters in Hellraiser ('87).
Born and bred in America, Wes Craven supposed a malevolent force that could kill through dreams in Nightmare on Elm Street ('84). John Carpenter, also of the land that was made for you and me, and never content with establishing just one subgenre, moved on to cinema's finest body-snatcher thriller in The Thing ('82), to a satire of boring Movie Catholicism wrapped in an interdimensional siege thriller in Prince of Darkness ('87), and to cosmic horror as goofy class warfare in They Live ('88). (Eventually, much later, he would deal in the penultimate cosmic horror, fully Lovecraftian in its scope, with In the Mouth of Madness, his most perfect film, his most serious film, and by far his most legitimately terrifying film.)
Speaking of Lovecraft, this period was naturally the most fecund for film adaptations of his body of work, albeit to varying results. And speaking of body-snatcher thrillers, the sub-subgenre's eponymous tale was remade by Philip Kaufman in '78 to great success. Of course zombies, invented the decade previous, are a special case of cosmic horror, if also the most lame and most hackneyed: thankfully they were kept in check, rather than allowed to proliferate as they have done in our dreary modern times. Finally, in 1984 the cosmic horror-comedy was born.
This list of movies I like was made possible by a grant from the Chubb Group.
Right in the middle, smack dab in 1980 itself, did enter Ken Russell, the flamboyant British auteur notable principally for nun porn and surrealist operas featuring classical musicians like Gustav Mahler and Roger Daltrey. He would probe the horror genre a few more times in his career, trading in more-or-less watchable garbage like The Lair of the White Worm, a movie that I am relatively certain is an actual joke, and not in the ironic way I meant when I asked if Lucy was a joke, though about what and upon whom I cannot definitively answer. (Still: to its credit, it is funnier.)
But here and now, the man that Roger Ebert could never review without uttering the words "wretched excess" dove right into cosmic horror's deepest end and came back up alive. It's strange when you learn in what low regard the studio held Russell, and how many other directors had to pass on Altered States before he was offered the job. As much as Altered States is almost certainly his career best work and in some regards an aberration in terms of both comprehensibility and quality, it is also impossible to imagine an Altered States this successful without his sensibility. Excess it inarguably is, but the adjective "wretched" would never have entered my mind, for Altered States is perfect in its every excessive moment, exploring perhaps the blackest, bleakest depth there is: the void where there should be meaning.
Meet Eddie Jessup; he's the gentleman suspended in the sensory deprivation tank. He is a professor, and deeply in love with his own twaddle. Ordinarily I'd jovially quip that I repeat myself. But for one thing, he's a STEM teacher (though we never see him teach anything); for another, his self-involvement manifests in a more pathological way than even a law professor's.
Or most of them, anyway.
Jessup's research into schizophrenia and other altered states of consciousness is not simply an empirical interest in abnormal psychology, but a true vision quest that he has been on since childhood, to regain the spiritually-tinged hallucinations he once experienced himself. His mania grows in fits and starts, as we follow him and his colleagues—one of whom he marries—through a decade of their lives; but ultimately Eddie's obsession cannot be contained by ordinary research, nor ordinary relationships. Fucking the woman who will be his wife, an intense look casts his face in iron as he stares off into the mysteries of an electric heater, and when she asks what he sees, he answers that he is imagining the crucifixion. (As demonstrated by her continuing appearance in Altered States subsequent to this scene, Emily Jessup is in many ways not a "human being" as is generally understood, but we'll get to that.)
Dragging his friends and family into his bullshit, he begins to experiment upon himself in increasingly dangerous ways—tripping with Indians on DMT in Mexico, locking himself in new and improved sensory deprivation tanks, and, he believes, transforming physically into the substance of his hallucinations. He has already reverted to the Primal Man, and the final form he may take he cannot say, but in regressing toward what he calls the First Self, he knows that he is on the road to Truth. Is he right, or has he gone mad? This is cosmic horror: he is, and he has.
Pictured: whom the gods would destroy. Except there is no God, and that's not just my opinion—it's an actual spoiler for the film.
Paddy Chayefsky, winner of three Oscars and author of the novel as well as the screenplay, infamously removed his name from the adaptation of Altered States, and was credited instead as Sidney Aaron. Reportedly, it was Ken Russell's tone problem that drove him to this extreme. Though little of Chayefsky's dialogue and scenario was actually changed, Russell's penchant for hyper-broad performances aroused a fear in him that the once-and-future jackass was turning his story into a farce.
Sometimes it must be very difficult to visualize the final result in the midst of creating order out of the chaos of a film production—something I suppose accounts for a great many bad movies by seemingly competent people—and it is to this that I attribute Chayefsky's disgust. We can sympathize with Chayefsky's position that Russell's direction and sound editing was garbling the author's heavily-sourced technobabble—if the stress of researching your novel gave you a heart attack, you'd probably be cranky too—but one can't escape the suspicion that Chayefsky was too annoyed by the cavalier attitude Russell took toward his precious, precious words to notice that Russell's approach was in fact imbuing his far-out material with a grungy naturalism. "The most serious movie Ken Russell ever made" represents a triumph over such a low bar that it sounds like a terrible insult, admittedly—and it's one I'm not entirely qualified to spout, since his early work's unavailability has made my research less than exhaustive—but Altered States is a very serious film by any standard. Indeed, it is a direly serious film, and really quite as serious as any movie about a man taking drugs that turn him into primordial life could be or should be.
William Hurt himself, in his screen debut, is almost distractingly intense as a man in a permanent existential crisis, with only the darkest sense of humor to round his edges. (Hurt also rocks his freakout scenes, although the one in Mexico is less "conventionally great acting" than it is "Ken Russell shooting fireworks off into his face while Hurt heroically stays in character." And this is why everyone wants to direct.)
His dual sidekicks in science, however—Bob Balaban and especially Charles Haid—offer a generous measure of comic relief. Their overlapping screaming and general carrying-on is not to all tastes, though, and apparently it was not to their screenwriter's.
This was fine though.
That description probably doesn't make it sound that palatable, but for my part, this is one of the more interesting and refreshing aspects of Altered States. The film, after all, is fundamentally yet another tale of a promethean mad scientist too driven by his passion for knowledge to recognize the human damage he's doing. But Altered States is a movie entirely populated by mad scientists. No character with more than ten lines, including the love interest, is bereft of a Ph.D. and tenure. It's not unlike 1950s sci-fi in that respect, but in 1980 they could use curse words and get naked.
It's only his colleagues' native resistance to insanely unethical experimentation that puts any check at all to Eddie's dangerous methods. However, through his force of personality and their own macabre curiosity their resistance is routinely overcome, often with amusing cuts from Haid refusing a preposterous request, then immediately helping anyway. Haid's the standout amongst the secondary cast, with his well-faked Southern-rube accent, burly physical presence, and profound commitment to profanity all nicely offsetting the irritable Harvard endocrinologist's well-manicured c.v.
Then there's Blair Brown, and no matter how many times I see Altered States I can't tell whether she's embracing a problematic character with a terrifically brave performance... or if she is in fact undercutting her character by giving a terrifically bad one. It would be too easy to say she was cast less for her acting talent than for her dynamite body and willingness to be fondled in the nude by an equally nude (and equally envy-inducing) Hurt. We've reviewed Chayefsky's problems with Russell's direction; but it's Brown and Brown alone who has serious problems with the gimmicky dialogue that permeates the film. Hurt, Balaban, and Haid never seem unnatural; Brown almost never doesn't.
In fairness her lines are also the most pretentious of them all, which is saying something, and seemingly written so that nobody could have possibly come off well reciting them. Her character, we can say with certainty, is cringingly artificial, but Brown gives hints—every now and again, and decisively toward the climax—that it's an intellectual construction that houses real emotions and passions and vulnerabilities. In the end, I have to declare Brown's work a qualified success: as improbable as it is that anyone would put up with Eddie's emotional abuse, it's not entirely unbelievable that her Emily Jessup might.
A rising tide lifts all boats, I guess.
And Eddie is one of the very shittiest husbands ever depicted by moving image outside of the Lifetime Network. (You'll note that I've had no occasion to mention the Jessup children. They have two, and I think Eddie speaks exactly one line to either of them, a whiny aside about himself.) It approaches the stilted that the script refuses to have Eddie ever tell Emily that he loves her; but this is, after all, pointedly symbolic of the real philosophical conflict of the film, between Eddie's life-denying asceticism and Emily's representation of its embrace—more succinctly, between each one's reaction to their own ineluctable human loneliness.
I waver constantly as to which film best expresses the essence of cosmic horror, this or In the Mouth of Madness. Carpenter's triumph is certainly the more conventionally frightening picture, positing that Lovecraftian beasts persist beneath the reality we perceive; it's even the more unconventionally frightening picture, as it removes that reality piece by piece, evoking a schizophrene's fear, a terror at the inadequacy of our senses and our reason. Madness offers an existence where cogito ergo sum still holds—barely—but can no longer suggest anything at all of the universe outside.
Altered States, by contrast, ultimately has little but purely cinematic use for ghastly body horror metaphors. The most frightening image in Altered States is not a hallucination, but a framing of Eddie Jessup beneath a doorway in silhouette shadow—an echo of a previous shot in which he is framed on another threshold, in equally discomforting blinding white. The former takes place soon after he has returned to human state, following a vicious rampage as the Primal Man; he speaks normally, even making a little joke, unaware that he has always been the hubristic villain of his own story, and that he is rapidly approaching the ultimate darkness.
The film's selling point is of course its mind-bending, well-appointed phantasmagoria—every quick-cut trip Eddie takes into and beyond his subconscious is an essential lesson in surrealistic filmmaking, from his vision of Emily as a sphinx eventually eroded by the sands of time to his remix of the story of the Garden of Eden. Fans of 2001 will no doubt enjoy the different-colored dyes dropped in water and filmed in closeup. And of course the presentation of the Christ with the head of a seven-eyed lamb must be the most successful hallucinatory image of Russell's entire hallucinatory career. If the climax edges into the chintzier, it is still kind of weirdly beautiful, its rotoscope-driven Primal CGI possessed of a blaring supernaturality that would probably only wind up looking cheap and stupid if someone tried to execute the same kind of idea today (or last weekend).
Plus, without it, no "Take On Me."
On the subject of sound, John Corligiano's score wasn't nominated for an Academy Award for no reason, and backs the distressing imagery with equally distressing music. Willie Burton and Michael Colgan do wonders themselves, mixing and editing, respectively, for Warner Bros.' "Megasound," a deep bass-enhancing format that barely existed.
Yet despite the font of audiovisual symbolism within his visions, it is all only reconstituted mythology. The fundamental reality Eddie Jessup finally discovers as he journeys on the encoded memories of his very atoms, beyond the inception of mere life and to the very creation of our precarious false vacuum state itself, must be communicated without image. Even language cannot do it justice, though Hurt comes closer than most could: for in the beginning there was no word, only nothing.
The revelation of Altered States is that life is the only reality—a complete inversion of cosmic horror. "Truth is what's transitory." The void is what's eternal, and the nature of the void is to reclaim anything that attempts to escape it. It is the power of love—Emily's love, human love, not divine love—that offers salvation. Altered States may be the horror movie that most adroitly negotiates such a turn toward sentiment, for it never feels false, but like a culmination.
And yet the horror beneath their victory lingers. If all we have is us, hope remains individual, uncertain, constrained by circumstance and physicality—the void shall win. The last image of Altered States is a man and woman, naked, huddled together, having banished the darkness for a time. Permit them their victory: having found each other, even if for just a moment, they are the lucky ones.
Score if they really killed that poor monitor lizard: 0/10