How a rock opera director made the trippiest sci-fi movie of the 1980s
The film that inspired Stranger Things and Fringe deserves a closer look.
Curious about the powers of ayahuasca but don’t fancy trekking into the foothills of the Peruvian Amazon, vomiting for hours on end, and reliving every single painful memory stored in the depths of your unconscious? The hallucinatory delights of Ken Russell’s sci-fi-horror Altered States (released 40 years ago on December 25, 1980) may well be the next best thing.
Even the 1980 cult classic’s origin story sounds like the byproduct of a fever dream. Paddy Chayefsky reportedly wrote the novel it adapts following a brainstorming session with cartoonist Herb Gardner and dancer Bob Fosse in a Russian tea room.
Instead of rewriting the umpteenth version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as planned, though, Chayefsky spent a considerable amount of time researching the findings of countercultural brain doctor John C. Lilly — and his pioneering sensory tank deprivation work, in particular. As a result, Altered States is densely packed with the kind of psychoanalytic jargon even viewers with a Ph.D. in neuroscience would struggle to keep up with.
26 directors were offered the chance to bring this verbose prose — the majority of which appears to be uttered by Charles Haid’s hilariously ever-exasperated researcher Mason — from the page to the screen before Russell was given the gig. Considering the Brit had made his name combining highbrow subject matter with surreal mind-bending visuals (Women in Love, The Devils, and The Who's Tommy, to name a few), you wonder why it took so long for Warner Bros. to call.
Chayefsky would soon wish they hadn’t. The Academy Award-winning screenwriter’s constant clashes with Russell about the film’s rapid-fire pace during early rehearsals ultimately led to his departure from the project — he apparently refused to see the finished product, which hit cinemas just a year before his death in 1981. Yet, according to Russell, the only notable change he made to the original script related to the psychedelic sequences that makes Altered States such an exhilarating watch.
These assaults on the senses only occur due to the dogged and, perhaps foolhardy, determination of Dr. Edward Jessup (The Incredible Hulk’s William Hurt in a self-assured big-screen debut). We first see the psychopathologist pushing the boundaries of his consciousness in a flotation tank while monitored by his more amiable fellow researcher Arthur (Bob Balaban). It’s an experiment born out of Jessup’s desire to explain the Book of Revelation visions he experienced as a child and one which will eventually consume both his academic and personal life.
For seven years later, when Jessup is on the verge of divorce from his anthropologist wife Emily (Blair Brown), he’s still obsessed with the idea that “our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states.” A trip to the Mexican bush adds further weight to his theory thanks to an Ayahuasca potion which triggers perhaps the most authentic hallucinogenic trip ever committed to celluloid.
It’s here that Russell is able to display his penchant for outlandish religious and sexual imagery to truly nightmarish effect. Shots of seven-eyed goats, menacing tribal dancers, and apocalyptic landscapes are interspersed with more personal visions (featuring copulation, tea-drinking, and suffocation by snake). The whole thing is edited at breakneck speed and soundtracked by John Corigliano’s inherently creepy Oscar-nominated score. Hurt magnificently captures this sense of disorientation, his facial expressions lurching from abject fear to the throes of ecstasy.
It only gets weirder from there. As Jessup continues the quest to find his true self by combining this mind-altering substance with sensory deprivation, his visions externalize. A bloodied mouth and loss of speech is worrying enough, but that’s nothing compared to an experiment that briefly transforms his human form back to a primal state.
For some critics, this was the moment when Altered States itself mutated from a thought-provoking exploration of the link between evolution and human consciousness into a corny mad scientist B-movie. The air bladder effects used to contort Jessup’s body may still impress 40 years on, but the cheap feral caveman prosthetics certainly don’t. There’s a farcical nature to the scene where he’s chased across the streets of Boston’s Beacon Hill by a pack of wild dogs before tucking into a wild sheep.
Thankfully, Russell wisely soon steers the film back into more interesting, expressionistic territory, resulting in a denouement that disturbs and dazzles in equal measure. Jessup’s unsettling final regression, in which he journeys all the way back to the Big Bang, threatens to permanently reduce him to little more than amorphous matter. In the end, it’s left to the literal helping hand of his estranged wife to save the day.
For all the weighty ideas explored, it’s the most basic human need which proves to be the key to Jessup’s quest. The man can wax lyrical about the theory of genetic memory, yet appears to lack any emotional intelligence whatsoever until Emily rescues him not just once but twice from a primordial fate. After 100 minutes of lurid symbolism and often unintelligible dialog, you could argue the most subversive thing about the film is this simple, long overdue declaration of love.
Of course, it’s Russell’s visual flair that’s left a pop-cultural mark far greater than Altered States’ modest $19.9 million box office gross would suggest. J.J. Abrams’ similarly-themed Fringe, in which Brown played a revolutionary science firm’s chief operating officer, was deemed to be the film’s spiritual cousin. Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers freely admit that they borrowed the design of Eleven’s isolation tank from Jessup’s experiments. It’s even paid homage to in the iconic video for A-ha’s “Take On Me.”
Who knows how Spielberg, Kubrick, or any of the other 24 filmmakers who reportedly refused to take the director’s chair would have tackled such a premise? However, few are unlikely to have conjured up mainstream cinema’s closest equivalent to the psychotropic brew.