Director – Ken Russell
Cast – William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Miguel Godreau, Drew Barrymore
Release Year – 1980
Reviewed by John of the Dead
Sci-fi/horror films have always been a treat for me due to my love of anything science oriented, and my supreme love of anything horror oriented. Mix the two together, and you have my utmost devout attention. Altered States is a film that surprised me with just how original and fascinating its content is, plus it gives us the ever-awesome William Hurt in his debut feature film role. For a Hollywood film, this one comes with guts and little glam.
This film follows Eddie Jessup(William Hurt), a Harvard psycho-physiological research scientist performing studies on human consciousness using an isolation tank. This brilliant and slightly crazy scientist decides to enter the isolation tank itself, and suffers captivating and addicting hallucinations. When a research trip to study a solitary Mexican Indian tribe that uses a potent potion of mushrooms to induce alternate forms of consciousness leaves Eddie bewildered over the effects of the potion, he decides to further study the drug on himself, and with the isolation tank. The resulting effects are more than any of Eddie’s colleagues nor Eddie himself would have ever imagined, and come with some heavy consequences.
I definitely underestimated this film. When I went into this piece I expected it to be the usual sci-fi/horror we get involving cool contraptions and a slowly maddening scientist, which I do enjoy, but I was wrong. We get all of those elements, plus a unique psychological aspect that I did not see coming but overly appreciated. William Hurt gives us a fantastic performance as the most polite selfish scientist of all time, a man who has the potential to love those around him, but chooses to pursue the questions we have no answers to as the true love of his life. This desire is what leads him to pursue his theories resulting from this dangerous experiment despite the obvious physically and psychologically damaging implications. His desire is not greed, but passion, and that is what makes his character so admirable despite the horrors he has created.
Based on Paddy Chayefsky’s novel of the same name, the storyline is an excellent one that blends horror, technology, evolution, anthropology, and psychology all into one film, and with just the right mix of each of those elements. Normally any film that blends that many different elements together winds up a mush due to improper writing and execution, but this film suffers not from that. Fans of any of those previously mentioned elements are sure to enjoy this film and may even find it thought provoking to say the least.
While the character usage of Eddie Jessup was excellent, we thankfully get several other worthwhile characters in this film that benefited the story. Emily Jessup(Blaire Brown), Eddie’s wife who is also a researcher, helps with the conflict of this film in the form of the loving wife who knows she is marrying a madman, but just the type of madman she can love and respect despite her fully aware that his research is his first and true love in his life. His co-researcher, Arthur Rosenberg(Bob Balaban; Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Lady in the Water), was another essential character thrown into the mix who serves as not only one of Eddie’s only friends but one who suffers from Eddie’s overbearing desire to find answers to the questions with no true answers. I mention these characters because time and time again we get films who throw in many characters yet 75 percent of them are worthless and seem only thrown in just to take up space and appease a bored audience. Well this film does not do that as we get another essential supporting character in Mason Parrish(Charles Haid; Nightbreed), an esteemed researcher overseeing Eddie and Arthur’s experiments and balking at their silly and unfounded theories, until he sees for himself just what they are talking about. Oh, and Drew Barrymore makes her screen debut as Eddie’s daughter, whom we rarely see, but yeah.
So despite all of the different elements thrown into this film I’m sure you want to know how good the “horror” is right? Well…the horror is good, and fulfilling. I was quite surprised that this film in fact came with a few good scares, thanks much to Ken Russell’s superb direction. Most of the horror outside of the scares is psychological horror(no surprise there) as a result of the hallucinations Eddie goes through. Even the hallucinations themselves were very creepy, visceral, and definitely resemble nothing I would ever want to dream about. My favorite aspect of the horror though was the regression that Eddie goes through, which I found both scientifically horrific and just plain ole horrific in general. Without giving too much away, Eddie goes through some biological and genetic changes that are sure to have a very scary effect on anyone suffering from such things, but of course Eddie being the way he is just lives it up and goes along for the ride.
Overall, this film comes highly recommended by me as one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films of all time. Those into sci-fi/horror films are sure to enjoy this film as it gives us everything we could want in such a film, with superb direction and a sweet story.