IN THE BASEMENT OF A UNIVERSITY MEDICAL SCHOOL DR. JESSUP FLOATS NAKED IN TOTAL DARKNESS. THE MOST TERRIFYING EXPERIMENT IN THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE IS OUT OF CONTROL... AND THE SUBJECT IS HIMSELF.
What if somewhere buried in your memory there was an untapped depth, a memory for your memory? And within that memory is held the billions of years of evolution that man had to go through to get here? If it were possible to tap into that part of your mind, and engage with your primitive ancestral self, what could you learn? Would you even want to? This would seem to be the root conceit of Paddy Chayefsky’s novel Altered States, which was eventually made into a film by British director Ken Russell, a man to whom upsetting imagery is another tool in the bag. He enjoys controversy, loves confrontation. So a story about a man trying to regress to the point of meeting God should pose something of an interesting work for him.
Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) is a Harvard psychology professor doing research into different states of consciousness, with the aid of mind-altering drugs and an isolation tank. Soon, he begins to experience physical changes that may mean he has begun to regress to an earlier state of evolution.
Paddy Chayefsky, the author of the original novel, provided the screenplay for this adaptation. It’s largely very faithful to the source, with most of the dialogue appearing verbatim in the film. It’s also completely batshit crazy. It’s basically a story of a mad scientist whose experiments go too far, kind of like a trippier version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Eddie is a man disconnected from the world on most levels, and who seeks to break free from it completely by means hallucinogenic. His disconnection comes from the loss of his father and loss of his own connection with God, so he is trying to reconnect with an early version of himself or of man or of the universe in an attempt to reconnect with God or, at least, prove to himself that there is something beyond it all. That his journey causes him to see all kinds of incredibly weird stuff and physically change is a price he is willing, even eager to pay. Despite the strangeness of the project, the script is concerned with very big concepts, weighty and important. As it is, upon seeing some of the performances on show and the visuals on display, Chayefsky had his name taken off of the project before seeing the final run. It’s not difficult to see why.
Ken Russell, a man who sure does love the odd bit of filmic blasphemy, has created a film as fractured as its main character. Clearly with some heavy influence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and perhaps some from the previous year’s Alien, Altered States is at once something of slow-burning, uneasy tension and of frantic mania. Russell’s Altered States is quite different to Chayefsky’s Altered States. Where Chayefsky’s is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of man and God and the universe punctuated with mind-mending weirdness, Russell’s is less a meditation and more of a panicked fever dream, hurtling images of Hell and damnation straight into the viewer's retina. He has given some care to the more sedate moments of the film, giving them a sense of eerie tension. His framing also involves lots of corridors and doorways and windows, breaking the frame into partitions. Through these, the actors can regress into the background, and progress into the foreground, echoing the emotional and psychological journey of the characters. However, it’s the moments where the crazy starts to fly that really take over. Eddie’s hallucinations are filled with the kind of heavy-handed religious metaphors and downright unsettling imagery that Russell is more fluent with. These are what you’ll remember most from the film. Not the discourse on energy as memory, but the bit with the seven-eyed devil goat.
With such a premium placed on the hallucination scenes, the need for the effects to be up to the task. By today’s standards, the visuals are crude and a little cheap looking, but they are still capable of making an effective and striking impression. More importantly, the sound is still great. There’s an oppressive quality to the sounds of “reality”, so there’s something to be said for Eddie’s desire to retreat to the quiet tranquility of the tank. And the sounds of the “other reality” is nightmarish swirls of screams and booms. The music from John Corigliano is also supremely disquieting.
The performances are of an equally fast-paced and frantic manner. William Hurt, here in his film debut, is both intense and reserved as Eddie Jessup. He manages to keep pace with the film nicely. His co-stars don’t come off quite as well, but mainly because we’re following Eddie’s journey, not there’s. We can see the ebb and flow of Eddie, so we can understand when he flies off the rails, but the rest seem to be more contrasted because of our lack of involvement with them. Blair Brown is a quiet rationality for the most part, as is Bob Balaban. However, by film’s end, they’re both yelling so loud and talking so fast, it’s kind of difficult to understand what the hell they’re saying. Charles Haid is a bit more of a consistent presence overall, since his feelings don’t take the same hysterical leap as others do. Saying that, he’s still yelling along with the rest of them, it’s just that he’s been doing it for the whole movie before.
There are things that the film raises, issues of interest and points of discussion, but nothing much ever really comes of them. This is pretty much a problem with Russell’s direction of the material at hand. He’s less interested in the concepts at play, the theorising, the intellectualising… he just wants to shock with images. It’s not really like it’s a gratuitous effort of stomping on the written word with little care for the subtext. Indeed, it follows along some of it nicely, about the death of God and the consciousness of man. However, it feels like the ideas being discussed are being thundered through in order to get to the more visual stuff. The performances somewhat echo this notion, too. For example, there is this exchange between Eddie and Mason:
Eddie Jessup: Memory is energy! It doesn’t disappear… it’s still in there.
There’s a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses. There has to be; and I’m telling you it’s in the goddamned limbic system.
Mason Parrish: You’re a whacko!
Eddie Jessup: What’s whacko about it, Mason? I’m a man in search of his true self. How archetypically American can you get? We're all trying to fulfil ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God, we’ve got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life.
That’s incredibly involved and interesting, but it’s all blurted out at such a rapid-fire rate that we just don’t have time to register the argument as a whole, but only brief soundbites. If they just slowed down a little, the viewer could be more engaged by the cerebral aspects of the picture and not just the visceral.
Altered States is certainly interesting, though I’m not entirely convinced at how good it really is. The concepts being addressed are fascinating, and there are elements of some fine filmmaking going on, but the near hysterical pitch of the piece brings it into the realm of an intense fever-induced nightmare. I suppose that’s really the point. It’s certainly engaging, but the relentless pace and rather frenzied performances do somewhat obscure the intended depth and meaning of it all.