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Weird Watch: ‘Altered States’

Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Star Wars, there is a Garzey’s Wing. For every Batman, there is a The Spirit. Here at Fandom, we like to go hunting for some offbeat and off-the-wall films and television shows that might just become your own secret treasures. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is the 1980 Ken Russell sci-fi horror ‘Altered States’. (Last week: Serial Mom)

Paddy Chayefsky. Ken Russell. Jordan Cronenweth.

If you’re into movies and don’t recognize these names, you should make some attempt to rectify that. These men were cinematic titans. Chayefsky wrote Network (1976), The Hospital (1971), and much more. Ken Russell directed The Devils, an infamously hard-to-see hybrid of exploitation and art film. Cronenweth was the director of photography who made Blade Runner look so good. And as luck would have it, the three of them got together and made a thinking man’s horror movie.

Altered States concerns Eddie Jessup (William Hurt, in his first movie): a young, arrogant, socially inept scientist who’ll stop at nothing to pursue the enlightenment he believes is locked away in psychedelic experiences. Jessup pushes away his family and friends to pursue his studies, but what he doesn’t realize is that the potent hallucinogen he brought back from Mexico may have extraordinary physiological and mental side effects.

The film’s late seventies academic setting, full of hairy hippie scientists (Bob Balaban) and academics (Blair Brown), evokes the early films of David Cronenberg and the boundary-pushing intellectual characters of Lovecraft.

altered-states-1

Chayefsky adapted his own novel (the only one he ever wrote) for the screen under the pen name Sidney Aaron. Sadly, he wouldn’t have used the pen name if he’d actually liked the film. Chayefsky and Russell fought like cats and dogs on the set, and Russell’s behavior was reportedly erratic throughout production. Chayefsky’s dialogue, much of it word for word from his novel, is long winded and thick with psychobabble and medical jargon. It’s like Aaron Sorkin dialogue, rattled off just as quickly, but without the flat snark and humor. It can be a bit hard to follow, but the film’s cast all perform admirably, even when they’re puking out lines like “Ever since we dispensed with God we’ve got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life.”

Films like Altered States, whose troubled productions and bad box office precede them, are often not nearly as bad as their reputations would have you think. Altered States is still a beautiful and horrifying film, especially on blu-ray. Despite resistance from Chayefsky, Russell forged ahead with his strong vision of the film. Combined with the lighting and camera work of Jordan Cronenweth, it’s a hell of a thing to behold. The film opens with an image that would look at home in a Gilliam film. Jessup floats vertically in a sensory deprivation tank, a huge cylinder with a solitary porthole. He wears a glass dome over his head, evoking the sense that he is an astronaut, a scuba diver, an explorer on the verge of a new frontier. It’s just one of many striking images in the film, which only proceeds to get more striking as it careens headlong into psychedelia. It’s one of Cronenweth’s criminally underrated works. In the first act, he lights Jessup’s entrance into a party as if Jessup were a celestial being. Later on, Jessup is a shadowy demon, stalking the halls of his ex-wife’s apartment. It’s just awesome.

altered-states-comparison

The film’s protracted trip sequences are accomplished with an impressive blend of practical and visual effects. Legendary makeup guru Dick Smith (The Exorcist, The Godfather, Scanners) was responsible for the film’s extensive prosthetic appliances, some of which covered performers’ entire bodies. Smith’s work is impeccable, but the visual effects (some of which were revolutionary in their time) are spotty, particularly when actors are composited into backgrounds.

altered-states-ape

But if there’s one really weak thing about Altered States, it’s the film’s romance. The first act breezes through Jessup’s romance and marriage with Emily (Blair Brown), much to the film’s detriment. Their supposed love for one another is vital to the film’s final minutes and abrupt ending, but it lacks proper establishment. The quiet and happy moments between them are too few, and too short. Even when they are together and in love, it can’t be happy — their first love scene is almost a vision of hell, lit by the orange glow of a space heater.

But the weak romance and abrupt ending aside, Altered States is an underappreciated gem, an important film that brings together a few great cinematic minds to make something singular. It also bears mentioning that the film, despite poor box office, was nominated for two Academy awards: best score, and best sound. It deserved a nomination for cinematography, but the Academy saw fit to nominate The Blue Lagoon instead. Oops.

Read more in our regular Weird Watch series here.


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