Four decades on, Ken Russell and Paddy Chayefsky’s psychedelic nightmare remains a testament to the perverse power of artistic conflict.
Altered States (1980) isn’t so much a movie as it is a cinematic boxing match between two singular and diametrically opposed talents, duking it out to see whose approach will triumph in the end. Both combatants are unrepentant sluggers through and through, determined not just to win but to knock the other right out of the metaphorical ring. Oddly enough, it’s the viewer who ends up feeling concussed. Even 40 years after its release, it boggles the mind that something like Altered States could have ever been produced in the first place, much less as an expensive A-level project for a major studio.
In one corner was Paddy Chayefsky, arguably the most powerful and celebrated pure screenwriter in Hollywood at that point in time. He’d won Oscars for the adaptation of his teleplay Marty (1955) and his original scripts for The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976), and was generally considered the driving creative force of any project he was involved in. In the other was Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of British cinema, who’d received equal acclaim and outrage for such singular works as Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), and Tommy (1975). These are not two people that probably wouldn’t want to even sit next to each other at a dinner party for a couple of hours, much less bring together on a project. But fate had other plans, and the result was one of the most unlikely (and ultimately doomed) combinations of artists in Hollywood history.
The project that brought them together was States, based on Chayefsky’s 1978 novel of the same name, inspired in part by the research that John C. Lilly conducted in the late Sixties revolving around sensory deprivation and psychoactive drugs. It tells the story of Edward Jessup (William Hurt, in his screen debut), a brilliant but cold psychopathologist who, along with fellow researchers Arthur Rosenberg (Bob Balaban) and Mason Parrish (Charles Haid), begins experimenting with sensory deprivation as a way of tapping into other states of consciousness. One night at a party, he meets fellow genius Emily (Blair Brown), she’s sufficiently smitten, and they get married.
Seven years later, Eddie, who fears he’s fallen into a place of academic respectability through a loathsome teaching gig at Harvard Medical School, decides to restart his sensory deprivation research. This time, he focuses on a powerful hallucinogen used in rituals by a remote Mexican tribe, using the isolation tank as a way of amplifying its effects. This certainly enhances the visions—which find him reaching further and further back in both time and evolution. But it also seems to, as he puts it, “externalize” them, to the point that an X-ray technician points out his X-rays look like those of a gorilla.
Nevertheless, Eddie continues, undergoing even more significant physical and psychological changes. At one point, he emerges from the tank in a feral state and runs amok before taking refuge in the Bronx Zoo. Neither this nor the pleas of his colleagues or Emily are enough to dissuade him from one final experiment, which predictably goes haywire in an orgy of light, sound, and weirdness that regresses him to little more than primordial ooze. Then it starts to get a little weird.
As the film launched into production, Chayefsky was clearly the person in charge; when he and original director Arthur Penn fought over how to make it, it was Penn who wound up leaving. Supposedly, twenty-some directors passed on replacing Penn before the idea of bringing in Russell came up. Considering the fact that he was a controversial figure himself, had not had a hit in years, had never made a film for an American studio and whose attitude towards the written word was somewhat less than reverential, picking him would have been an enormous gamble at best. But he did have a distinct visual sense that would help fuel the numerous effects-heavy set pieces. Since Chayefsky’s contracts reportedly stipulated that his script could not be changed at all without his approval, he probably figured that his position as the top dog was safe.
Russell won the war in the end — and, as is obvious when you actually watch the film, he had the correct approach all along.
Predictably, Chayefsky and Russell came into massive conflict during the rehearsal period, which led to Russell banning Chayefsky from the set and Chayefsky trying to get Russell fired. It was a move that hardly endeared him to the studio, since a.) a considerable amount of money had already been spent and b.) they’d already let one director go at his insistence. Much of this reportedly stemmed from Russell’s method of dealing with the overly-verbose screenplay while abiding by the restrictions towards what he could do. He kept all the dialogue but had the actors delivering most of it at a rapid His Girl Friday-style pace, often while eating at the same time. Chayefsky finally washed his hands of the whole thing, took his name off of the script (it would be credited to “Sidney Aaron,” his real first and middle name), which would prove to be his last. (He would die in 1981.)
Russell won the war in the end — and, as is obvious when you actually watch the film, he had the correct approach all along. While the rapid-fire delivery may have seemed like gibberish to many audience members, it adds a touch of verisimilitude to the proceedings that help to ground the fantastical narrative in a recognizable reality. By spitting out their highly technical jargon at such a frenetic, overlapping rhythm, you feel you’re among people who think faster than we can, so consumed with demonstrating their intelligence they can’t be bothered with the most conventional of social graces.
It also helps to cover up the fact that Chayefsky’s screenplay is, to put it in scientific terms, a load of horse manure. The story basically comes across as a strange and pretentious remake of Jack Arnold’s largely-forgotten Monster on the Campus (1958), with isolation tanks and hallucinogens replacing coelacanth blood as the catalyst for a stuffy professor to return to a primitive state of being. Another problem (typical of Chayefsky’s entire output, it’s a shame to say) is his inability to write dialogue you can actually believe a real person might say. His characters don’t speak; they declaim and pronounce and rage into the night about the death of God and man’s place in the universe. Worse yet, they all sound the same to the point of absurdity, and while Hurt and Brown almost make their scenes together seem natural, most others end up lost in a sea of histrionics.
Of course, one doesn’t watch Altered States for the glib dialogue and solid narrative, but for the big visual setpieces on display. It says a lot about the quality of the effects, supervised by Bran Ferren, that they manage to inspire a genuine sense of awe even after four decades of technological advances. Merging together imagery that is erotic, horrifying and awe-inspiring, and bolstered by an equally ripe score from John Corigliano, you get the sense that Russell and Ferren decided to try to take the legendarily freeform Star Gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and make an entire film about it. The results are some of the most stunning and original visuals ever conjured on the big screen.
When Altered States came out, it did well enough to make a few bucks, but wound up an anomaly to the system rather than an inspiration for future weirdness. Of course, it became an instant cult favorite, regarded as one of the most audacious major studio genre projects of its era. I have no idea what younger viewers—those with little frame of reference regarding Russell, Chayefsky, isolation tanks or expensive genre films with little interest in inspiring action figures or extended universes—make of it when they encounter it for the first time nowadays. One thing’s for sure: if they do see it, they’ll never forget it.