Altered States (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blair Brown’s hairy armpits.

            This film, which is loosely based on the experiences of dolphin researcher John Lily the inventor of the isolation tank, and from the Paddy Chayefsky novel comes this bizarre concoction that is half sci-fi and half surreal fantasy.  The story pertains to Eddie Jessup (William Hurt in his film debut) who spends time in his isolation tank at his Harvard research lab while taking hallucinatory drugs that send him into different states of consciousness that become increasingly more frightening and vivid until they begin to externalize in his everyday life.

It was directed by Ken Russell and if you are familiar with his work you realize that means the presence of lots and lots and lots of strange visuals that come at you in quick and unannounced ways. They are confusing, cluttered, and often times make no sense. However, since the story is pretty wide-open these trippy segments work to the film’s benefit, unlike other Russell productions where I felt they became off-putting.  They also give the movie distinction and momentum. I’ve never done LSD, acid, or meth, but these segments probably come as close to the experience of a drug trip as you will find.  It is best not to demand any logic and instead sit back and allow it to become an assault on the senses, which on that level works to excellent effect. I came away wishing these scenes had been more extended and frequent as they are the best part of the movie. Of course the state-of-art special effects are no longer as impressive and look like images put on a mat screen, but some of the other stuff is cool. My favorite part is where a naked Blair Brown and Hurt are lying on the ground and a strong wind completely covers their bodies with sand and then they slowly evaporate into the air.

Hurt does a competent job and the character isn’t the clichéd kind of sensitive modern man like most Hollywood protagonists. He is emotionally ambivalent and self-centered.  His unromantic marriage proposal to Emily (Blair Brown) is one for the books, but I liked it. Most research scientists probably aren’t a socially skilled, people person to begin with otherwise they wouldn’t be shutting themselves inside a lonely, dingy research lab all day, so in that regards I felt the script hit the target and gave the film a little more of an edge.

Blair does fine in her role as the long suffering wife and it is nice seeing her looking so young and even briefly smoking a joint. She looks great naked, but her armpits where much too hairy during the love-making scene and she should have shaved them. I also found it amusing that during the time the two were separated Eddie started to have relations with a younger student of his who continued to refer to him as ‘Dr. Jessup’ even when they were in bed together.

Charles Haid plays Mason Parrish a friend of Eddie’s who helps him out with his experiments despite strong misgivings. His rants and tirades are well-played and give the film energy when it is not in fantasy mode.

To me the movie became boring and contrived when Eddie started to mutate into that of an ape man and runs around the campus and city terrorizing everyone. It seemed too reminiscent to An American Werewolf in London, which came out around the same time as well as countless other wolf man movies. The part is also not played by Hurt, but instead Miguel Godreau, who was an excellent dancer. I was impressed with his limber body and the way he could climb things, which gave him an animalistic quality, but felt that if it represented the Hurt character then Hurt should have been performing it even if it meant allowing for certain concessions.

The opening sequence showing Hurt locked in a thin, rusty tank in an empty room is terrific. There is a certain starkness and foreboding quality, especially with the eerie music, that makes this one of the better openings to a horror movie. The use of the credit titles is creative and reminded me a bit of The Shining. However, the film’s ending is horrid and one of the worst I have seen. It reeks of being a forced ‘happy’ Hollywood ending that practically ruins the entire picture as a whole. Because of this and the fact that the script seems to only skim the surface of this potentially fascinating subject matter forced me to give it only a 5 rating.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated R (Language, Brief Nudity, Adult Theme, Intense Visuals)

Director: Ken Russell

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video 

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