Moving Pictures
Jul 10, 2024, 06:28AM

Hurt Hair

Altered States is a typical Ken Russell film but an unusual finale for Paddy Chayefsky.

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Altered States is one of Ken Russell’s better-known works, a 1980 Hollywood science-fiction movie with a healthy budget. But look at his filmography, and it’s an anomaly. Its main characters are scientists, not artists. Add to that, it has an American setting and American characters. Compared to the rest of his oeuvre, it has a veneer of seriousness.

His signature visual power and cinematic craft is still present. It’s just that for this film he’s working with a script by Paddy Chayefsky. Russell’s 1977 film Valentino had failed at the American box-office, and Altered States was his big break back into filmmaking; he got it only after the original director quit and a number of others turned it down. Given a Hollywood budget, Russell turns in a fine ambiguous work: looked at one way it’s tongue-in-cheek camp, looked at another way it’s oddly-structured horror-inflected science fiction.

It’s the story of Edward Jessup (William Hurt), a psychopathologist studying schizophrenia who becomes interested in altered states of consciousness. Jessup’s a rationalist who’s turned away from a religious background but is still drawn to questions of faith and meaning; he meets an anthropologist named Emily (Blair Brown), and seven years later they’re married with kids. But she’s alienated by his obsession, and about to separate from him. This spurs Jessup to travel to Mexico to explore the mental states brought on by ingesting a mind-altering mushroom as part of a religious ceremony of an indigenous tribe.

That gives Russell the chance to indulge in a long psychedelic vision, and that’s not an opportunity he’ll waste. After an extended sequence of berserk imagery, Jessup takes some of the mushroom back to Harvard, where he’s been working with sensory deprivation tanks. Taking the mushroom in the tank affects his consciousness to the point where his body is physically altered to an earlier stage in human evolution.

Further alterations follow; you can see the distant influence of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on Chayefsky’s screenplay. There’s ultimately a cosmic climax, after which the film goes on, reaching a smaller-scale but more human conclusion. Whether that conclusion, or the rest of the film, is to be taken seriously or not depends on the viewer. But this may be less a question of either-or than both-and.

Chayefsky didn’t like what Russell did with his script, though according to Russell he stuck faithfully to what Chayefsky wrote. In fact what Russell has his actors do with the dialogue—tossing off ideas casually, mumbling through bites of food, rushing through them to get to the important bits—is convincing in a way that’s unusual for an American movie. These academics sound like academics. Genuinely intelligent people don’t turn off their intelligence when they go to the bar for a drink; on their days off, they don’t stop being fascinated with whatever they’re studying.

The problems with the movie are Chayefsky’s plot, particularly the exoticism of indigenous religion and the general overuse of new-age woo, to say nothing of the unlikeliness of the central gimmick. But the development of the implausible story works, and the genre clichés of mad scientists and self-experimentation anchor the weirdness of the rest of the story. Time moves strangely in the movie, skipping seven years in a moment and then slowing back down, but that also creates a subtle sense of dislocated reality, an altered state in itself.

On the other hand, the film feels right at home in its overall era. The parties we see with professors are filled also with the vibes of post-hippie credulity. If the film’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde riff, it’s one for the specific moment of 1980, when people were still taking drugs to find their true selves, still fascinated with what they saw, and believed in the value of studying these things with some kind of scientific rigor. The movie can’t help but feel retro now; the computers Jessup uses are clunky pre-PC mainframes, while his sensory deprivation tanks have an oddly steampunk tinge to their design.

It's 2001 in 1980, the mad cosmic visions toned down but still present. At the very end Jessup anchors himself to reality by slamming himself into the walls of his apartment, a sequence swiped wholesale for that 1980s moving-picture classic, A-Ha’s video for “Take On Me.” You can say it has staying power, at least.

As for the transformation of Jessup into Hyde, Russell doesn’t focus more than he has to on the implausibility of the physical transformation of William Hurt into some kind of proto-human. Instead, with the help of cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (who would shoot Blade Runner a couple of years later) he builds a solid horror atmosphere. The scene of Hurt as a caveman is out of place at first, disconnected from the rest of the film, then comes to seem a different way of getting at the same ideas. The long wordless sequence is formally interesting as the sort of visual storytelling that Russell excels at, just as the religious imagery called for in the script lets Russell bring in his obsessions about God and death.

Ultimately the story’s about love and God and Jessup negotiating between the two or the absence of same. It’s a horror movie with grand themes that inform the dramatic action. But whether it’s serious or camp or serious camp is best left to the viewer. It’s a movie that’s too intelligent and too involved to wholly send itself up, but also too absurd to take seriously. It’s a Ken Russell movie, and so worth watching.


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