It has been nearly 20^ years since ALTERED STATES was released and despite that amount of time, the movie still stands in every respect, even in Special Effects.
ALTERED STATES, in accordance with Ken Russell's vision (THE DEVILS, GOTHIC, LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM), could not exist without special effects. Ken Russell's over abused Psychedelic Journeys, and his oft repeated imagery grafted onto film after film, one to the next, whether it worked or not, often threaten to overpower the movie itself. Discipline and care was taken to stop this on many levels.
1. The executives at Warner Brothers at the time wanted Ken to direct after
While Penn cannot hold a candle to Russell in terms of quantity of films directed, he more than makes up for that in the quality of films he has directed. At the time that Russell was drafted to finish directing ALTERED STATES, he was stumbling off of a very sporadic career that included way out celluloid LSD trips such as the musicals (or Rock Operas, if you prefer) Lisztomania and Tommy. The only noticable thing he did after ALTERED STATES was GOTHIC, a flawed masterpiece which raised his career up and THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, an insipid and ridiculous piece that brought him back down.
Fortunately for us all, Ken was brought in to direct the final scenes that involved the mind voyages. So Russell was a brilliant choice in that respect as he could take us from the staid and sterile old Boston centers of learning and smack into the extraordinary out of control excitement that knocks us out of our seats.
Though author Paddy Chayefsky hated this movie (in the credits his name was changed to Sidney Aaron) and even disowned it due to Ken Russell's wild-eyed direction, this film never-the-less captivated audiences with its mind-melting journey.
When the film opens, it is 1967 and we see the distorted face of Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt: DARK CITY, LOST IN SPACE, DO NOT DISTURB, THE VILLAGE) through the glass window of an old fashioned isolation tank. He is trying sensory deprivation. What he knows of it fascinates him, but no real scientists like himself are actively pursuing sensory deprivation on humans.
Jessup is a driven man with personal demons that seem minor when he speaks of them but horrifyingly overwhelming when Russell lets us into his dreams. It is these demons that drive Eddie to pursue the Lovecraftian inner mind contact that is achieved via sensory deprivation.
At a faculty party he meets a post grad anthropology student named Emily (Blair Brown: THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE) and after a very brief whirlwind of Eddie's rapid chatter*, he asks Emily to take him home with her. Finding him handsome, tall, blue eyed, blonde, confusing and sexy, she barely has a moment to say yes and they are off to sofa time.
If you have read my other reviews here then you know that there are often moments where I say "And Merry Mishaps occur". That is because most movies reach a destination point, usually quite early in the movie where you can say, "Ah! So that's what this is all about."
One of the best things about ALTERED STATES is that you are never really sure where all this is supposed to take you.
There are several moments in the movie where friends of mine erroneously thought, "I see, so this is what this movie is all about." But the truth is, you never really discover where the movie is going until the end, and only then does it all make sense . . . sort of.
Of course, a Science Fiction movie deserves a...
ALTERED STATES is the movie that almost didn't get made. That being the case, it is surprising that it came off as good as it did. Besides the two main actors, major kudos also go to Bob Balaban as Arthur Rosenberg, Charles Haid (in probably his finest performance, but he also starred in: NIGHTBREED) as Mason Parrish and Thaao Penghlis as Eccheverria.
Compliments to the wild and feral work of Miguel Godreau (b.1947 - d.1996: AIDS) as the Primal Man. His vicious nervous terror will make you believe. Kudos also to the fabulous make-up work of Dick Smith (THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE, [TV] DARK SHADOWS, THE EXORCIST, THE SENTINEL, GHOST STORY, SCANNERS, THE HUNGER) and the mood setting music of John Corigliano (LE VIOLON ROUGE [The Red Violin]).
Everybody involved in this movie did a masterful job. If Ken Russell hadn't spent so much time copy/pasting his own personal cliches to the story, ALTERED STATES would have received a perfect 5 Shriek Girls. Still, 4 is pretty good.
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