Movie Review: ALTERED STATES Impresses with Its Unrestricted Imagination

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For many – myself included – the Rosetta Stone to most contemporary horror-sci-fi is Robert Louis Stevenson’s great Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Stevenson gave more force and clarity to a concept that writers like Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker had been developing for years: that man’s pursuits of scientific advancement always boil down to a battle between his greater and lesser angels.  Stevenson’s coup was to make the external internal; while Shelley used Frankenstein’s monster and Stoker used Dracula to personify human demons, Stevenson had his hero (Jekyll) turn into his villain (Hyde) as Jekyll’s experiments progressed.  No wonder Stevenson’s wife made the author burn his first draft – there’s nothing as psychically disturbing as the enemy within, especially when it grows from the wide-eyed discovery of new worlds.

So it goes with Altered States.  Forget the high-toned trappings; despite screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s love of the voluminous technobabble his heroes (first among equals: William Hurt, as maverick researcher Eddie Jessup) spout at each other, the film isn’t a serious discourse on the scientific method.  What lingers is the scary stuff: that Jessup’s extreme search for knowledge changes him into raging creatures from the subconscious (including a primitive man straight out of the Geico commercials and a human-scaled version of Forbidden Planet‘s ID monster).  The fantastic overcomes the realistic, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  In playing up the genre beats, director Ken Russell and his cast get right to the heart of the matter – that our ambition also holds the potential for our destruction.

Subtle?  Not so much.  But it works, and a big part of why it works stems from Russell’s insane cinematic eye.  Chayefsky’s masterstroke – in both the novel and the script – was taking inspiration from John C. Lilly’s LSD-motivated experiments in the 1950’s and 1960’s that attempted to study the limits of human consciousness, a setup that let Russell create a visual fantasy unlike anything he’d ever done before (in films like The Devils or Tommy).  Every time Jessup tunes in and drops out for the sake of science, we get treated to increasingly extreme drug trips, represented in bright primary colors that abound in bizarre religious symbolism (love that Death’s Head Jesus).

Russell’s key visual signature is to represent the mind as a vast, open desert that holds more nightmares that its barrenness signifies, and these sensory deprivation setpieces are so potent that they overwhelm Jessup’s actual transformations – the wildness of the mind will forever trump the physical world, even if it’s populated by monsters.  Russell isn’t interested in making a sober-minded examination of the brain; he wants to make a head-trip on the level of Fantasia and Un Chien Andalou.

On that level alone, Altered States is worth a look.  What gives it greater resonance is the flinty, passionate relationship between Hurt and Blair Brown’s brilliant scientist-spouses.  They want it all: to unravel the secrets of the mind, to raise a family together, to commit fully to each other, to commit fully to their work, and what they learn is these impulses are mutually exclusive.

Hurt’s character, in particular, feels these dialectics most intensely; his professional ambitions soon eclipse his personal ones, and Hurt lets us see the selfishness, the arrogance that threatens to drive Jessup away from positive human contact.  He’d rather turn into a destructive rage beast than sublimate his own ego in service to Brown and their family, and we begin to realize that – as with Dr. Jekyll in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – the real monster is always present, and that its most terrifying incarnation occurs behind Hurt’s affable blandness.

Altered States can’t sustain its visceral mix of intimacy and insanity; the big finale, which finds Brown confronting a completely out-of-control Jessup, resolves itself like some uneasy combination of a Laser Floyd show and a Lifetime TV movie.  Everything up to that moment is just aces, though: thrilling, funny, wise, and deeply ludicrous, and a potent reminder of why the movies offer the best “trips” possible.

Warner’s Blu-ray looks phenomenal; the great DP Jordan Cronenweth (he of Stop Making Sense and Blade Runner fame) shot the film, and his moody, low-light images have real vibrancy and texture.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also strong, though perhaps not quite as powerful as the theatrical Megasound mix – I saw a revival print with Megasound a few years ago, and the aural experience shook me in ways few movies do.

As for features, we get a trailer.  Nothing on Chayefsky and Russell’s behind-the-scenes squabbles, nothing on the special effects – nada.  It’s a missed opportunity.

Altered States doesn’t feel as dated as it should; even with the early 1980’s FX work and fashions, director Ken Russell maintains such a feverish pitch of intensity.  His is one of the most entertaining Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde riffs, a real horror story for adults.

Altered States is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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